Luongo rounding into Olympic form
Heating up: Until recently it looked like Price was right for Sochi, but more recently, Lou's been on fire
Under direct cross-examination, Roberto Luongo said what you'd expect him to say.
No, he hasn't thought about Sochi. Yes, his focus is on the Canucks.
Sure, he's glad he's come back from his ankle injury and played well when the Canucks needed him to. But as far as the elephant in the room, no, Luongo doesn't see the elephant in the room.
So let's help him. With the Canucks eight games away from the Olympic break before Thursday night's meeting with the Nashville Predators, Luongo is coming off two of his strongest outings of the season: a 2-1 win over the Oilers in Edmonton on Tuesday night and a 3-2 shootout win over Calgary on Saturday night.
He's done this while Montreal's Carey Price, the presumptive No. 1 for Team Canada, has started to slump. In his last four outings, Price has allowed 16 goals and could last be seen sitting on the Habs bench after surrendering five goals to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night in just over 35 minutes of work.
Luongo now has a higher save percentage and a lower goals-against average than Price, whose save percentage has also gone down every month this season. As for Canada's other goalie for Sochi, Mike Smith sits 30th in the NHL in save percentage behind, among others, Florida's Tim Thomas and someone named Justin Peters for Carolina.
So given all this, and given that Canada's first game in Sochi is now three weeks away, who would you start in goal? For the first three months of this NHL season, the answer appeared to be Price.
Now? You wonder. You really do. "I don't think anyone should be surprised," Preds defenceman Shea Weber said of Luongo's recent play. "He's a great goaltender and he's proven it year in and year out."
"It's a funny thing," said Luongo. "When you're injured and away from the game, you miss it. When you come back you're even more excited to play. We were in a bit of a difficult stretch and we need the points. That's where my attention is now, 100 per cent."
But you don't mind if the attention of Canadian hockey fans starts drifting toward Sochi and that first game against Norway.
Canadian coach Mike Babcock has generally been coy about his goaltending situation. On Jan. 7 when the team was announced he said it would be "foolish," to name a No. 1 when there are so many variables in play. At the orientation camp in late August - a.k.a. the world's most expensive ball hockey tournament - Babcock said one goalie would separate himself from the pack before the Olympic tournament started.
More and more, that looks like Luongo.
Price had a brilliant October, recording a .939 save percentage over the first month of the season and, until Christmas, looked like the lead horse in the race.
But while Price's save percentage has decreased every month since the season started, Luongo's has improved in every month.
In December, it stood at a sparkling .944 in eight games before he was run over by the Kings' Dustin Brown in a game on Jan. 4. Luongo would then miss two weeks but came back with a vengeance, stopping 31 of 33 against the Flames on Saturday night and 28 of 29 against the Oilers.
"I think he realizes the position we're in and he needs to be playing really well," said Daniel Sedin. "I hope that's his main focus."
"He's been lights-out two games in a row and I hope it's three games in a row," Canucks acting head coach Mike Sullivan said before meeting the Preds.
For Team Canada, there's also a history when it comes to Luongo. For starters, this will be his third straight Olympics and only forward Rick Nash can make the same claim.
Counting world juniors, world championships and one World Cup, Sochi will be his 10th appearance for Team Canada and his numbers while wearing the Maple Leaf are off the charts.
In Vancouver in 2010, he recorded a .927 save percentage and 1.69 GAA in winning the gold.
In four world championships his save percentage has been .934. At the 1999 world juniors in Winnipeg he almost stole his country a gold medal before a so-so Canadian team fell to the Russians 3-2 in overtime of the gold medal game.
Luongo's reputation with Hockey Canada, in fact, is that of a known quantity, someone who'll stand in the hottest part of the spotlight and deliver the goods, and you have to admit, that's not a bad reputation to call on for the Olympics.
"Lou's a real good goalie and we've had a lot of success with him in Canada," Babcock said when Team Canada was announced three weeks ago. "In the end, whoever gives us the best chance to win is going to play."
Right now, that has to be Luongo.
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Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo has come back with a vengeance after getting injured Jan. 4, stopping 31 of 33 shots against the Flames in a 3-2 shootout win on Saturday night and 28 of 29 in a 2-1 win against the Oilers on Tuesday.
Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG Files, The Province