A little over a year ago, Roberto Luongo found himself in a fight he couldn’t win. As a 6-foot-4, 260-pound Dustin Byfuglien propped himself up in on the edge of the goal crease in front of Luongo, the Vancouver Canucks’ goaltender jabbed and pushed at the immovable object known admirably then and now as “The Byfalo.”
You don’t have to be a history buff (or should I say “Byf”), to know what happened to Vancouver and Roberto Luongo in that series against the Chicago Blackhawks. You also don’t have to be an expert in the science of physics to figure out why Roberto Luongo’s efforts were largely an ill-fated attempt from the start. But for the sake of standardized testing, let’s take a look at this question that’s worthy of the math portion of the SAT.
“If a goaltender attempts to move a rather large body weighing close to sixty pounds more than the goaltender, how long will it take the goaltender to figure out that it’s probably not a good idea to physically engage with said body?”
For Luongo, it took an offseason of changes and being upended on more than one occasion by Byfuglin in those Western Conference Semifinals to find the answer.
One of the stories of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs was this ongoing battle between Luongo and Byfuglien in the small amount of square footage (about the size of most walk-in closets) in front of the goal crease.
Fast-forward a year ahead, where Luongo is now facing the big bad Boston Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals. His road there was laid with demons slain, as he earned victories over nemeses Chicago, Nashville, and San Jose.
But in Game 1 of these Finals, Luongo found an even bigger body propped in front of him, if you can believe it. That body belonging to the towering Boston defenseman, Zdeno Chara.
Six Boston power plays featured Chara finding his spot in front of Luongo on the evening, but there would be no battles between the two. No pushing. No shoving. Chara set at the tippy top of the crease and waited, but this time Luongo wasn’t taking the bait.
“We decided it would be best if we left him alone and let me deal with it,” said Luongo on dealing with the net looming Chara in the Canucks 1-0 victory on Wednesday night.
“On the first power play, it was a bit tough to find the puck,” Luongo went on to explain. “But after another one, I was able to make some adjustments and see the puck better.”
After the Vancouver Canucks’ organization decided to move in another direction with their goaltender coach, firing Ian Clark in the off season, newly hired Roland Melanson took on rather large changes within Luongo’s game. Possibly the biggest change? You know that old cheer at high school sporting events “BE-AGGRESSIVE? B-E-AGGRESSIVE?” Well, just the opposite of that.
As an extremely disciplined positional butterfly goaltender, Luongo had been brought up like many other goalies in the same style. It’s all about the angles. It’s all about aggressively challenging the shooter. It’s all about never finding yourself in the blue paint when you make a save. And for the most part, this worked for Luongo, but no way of stopping the puck will ever be perfect.
Wandering far from the home of the blue paint means mistakes are magnified. Off on your angle by a small margin up close is magnified the further you come out. Out of position in close is remedied by a quick shuffle or slide. Out of position out of the crease often means the only play is a last ditch desperation flail or dive.
Melanson saw the long limbed Luongo and tried something different. Luongo would play in his big butterfly which takes up a good amount of net as is. Instead of being aggressive, though, Melanson preached sitting back and relying on a world class skill set. Less moves to get from point A to B. Less ground to cover. Less confrontation in territorial battles Luongo couldn’t win.
Translation: more control.
This change has been the biggest upgrade in Luongo’s game to this point, and though it seems like a simple change, the habit-breaking and rebuilding is a long and arduous process. Even in the smallest changes, goaltenders can’t help but feel like a fish out of water.
Surely in the first few months, Luongo might have felt small in the deep blue of the crease. Not casting a large body bursting out of the net, it was a trust developed in his sense of position, and a trust in his natural athletic ability to react and make saves.
With a 1-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Finals, there is still a lot of hockey to be played. Will the Bruins continue their attempt to draw the Canucks’ goalie from the safety of his newly adorned spot in the blue paint? Its hard to say, but on Wednesday night Luongo showed that sometimes the best thing to do is to walk away from a fight.