Willes: Luongo rounding into Olympic form
Until recently it looked like Price was right for Sochi, but lately Lou’s been on fire
Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo has come back with a vengeance after getting injured Jan. 4, stopping 31 of 33 against the Flames on Saturday night and 28 of 29 against the Oilers Tuesday.
Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, The Province
Under direct cross-examination, Roberto Luongo said about 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 play well. 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 their Olympic break, Luongo is in a stretch of games which may be deciding Canada's starting goalie in Russia. Thursday night, the Canucks dropped a 2-1 decision to the Nashville Predators but that result had a lot more to do with their impotent offence than their goalie. Since returning to the lineup from an ankle injury, Luongo has now stopped 83 of 88 shots while the Canucks have won two of their last three.
If that sounds underwhelming, consider they've scored five goals over those three games.
Luongo has also done this while Montreal's Carey Price, the presumptive No. 1 for Team Canada, has allowed 16 goals in his last four outings, including a five-goal stinker in which he was yanked after 35 minutes of work on Wednesday night.
The Canucks' keeper now has a higher save percentage and a lower goals-against average than Price. 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.
"It's a funny thing," Luongo said before meeting the Preds. "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 towards Sochi and that first game against Norway.
Thursday night, the Canucks couldn't make a 1-0 second period lead stand up and, again, gave Luongo a razor-thin margin of error to work with. On this night, it didn't work out, largely because the Preds scored the game-winner on Nic Spaling's power play deflection midway through the third and the Canucks eyesore of a power play went 0-for-5, including a four-minute session in the first period when they kept the Predators hemmed in their zone, created half a dozen chances and didn't come within 28 miles of scoring a goal.
"That's the way it goes, man," a subdued Luongo said afterwards. "The NHL has a lot of low-scoring games. We have to find a way to win those games. We have to find a way to protect leads. Obviously, this is a tough one to lose."
But, while he doesn't acknowledge it publicly, there's another issue in play for Luongo these days.
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 also said one goalie would separate himself from the pack before the Olympic tournament started.
Right now, 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, 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. The Montrealer would miss two weeks but came back with a vengeance, stopping 31 of 33 against the Flames and 28 of 29 against the Oilers before Thursday night's tough loss.
For Team Canada, there are also other considerations when it comes to Luongo. Counting World Juniors, World Championships, Olympics and one World Cup, Sochi will also 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 '99 WJC in Winnipeg he almost stole his country a gold medal before a so-so Canadian side fell to the Russians 3-2 in overtime in the gold medal game.
"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."
More and more that looks like Luongo.
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