CHICAGO – With the opening faceoff still hours away, Roberto Luongo was already preparing for the volley of shots that seemed certain to come on Monday.
The Canucks goalie moved deliberately through basement hallways at the United Center, taking two steps and bending one knee and then repeating with the other.
Luongo knew he’d have to be nimble in the Canucks’ net again, especially after the host Blackhawks peppered him with 17 first period shots in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal on Saturday, which Vancouver won 5-1 thanks largely to their captain.
This time, the Blackhawks hit Luongo with 33 shots, beat him three times and added a late empty netter as they evened the best-of-seven series with a 4-2 victory.
“We had a great start, no doubt about it,” said Luongo, whose team opened a 2-0 lead within the game’s first five minutes. “I thought the first 10 minutes we generated a lot of scoring chances and it easily could have been 4, 5-0.”
This time, it was the Canucks who flooded the zone early in front of Chicago goalie Antti Niemi with nine shots in the first 7:23 and a quick 2-0 lead.
But Chicago picked up the pace from there, outshooting Vancouver 10-4 through the rest of the period and getting a goal back on Brent Seabrook’s first playoff goal.
“They answered right away with a goal and after that the game was played pretty closely the rest of the way,” Luongo said.
While the Blackhawks won a tight game, they tried their hardest to open things up earlier, only to be denied by Luongo.
Chicago outshot the Canucks 9-7 in the second period with several good chances, but the Canucks’ goalie turned back everything, from deflecting shots across the crease to handling point-blank shots.
The Blackhawks even briefly pulled Niemi to put six shooters on Luongo, to no avail.
In the third period, Chicago’s Patrick Sharp scored the game-tying goal at 6:49 as he picked up a loose puck and swooped towards the Vancouver goal. Luongo moved to his left to try to cut the anticipated angle, but Sharp shifted gears and found an opening to the goalie’s right and fired.
Sharp had a shot at a short-handed goal several minutes later with a one-on-one. But a deflection into the glass by Luongo prevented Chicago from going ahead.
The Blackhawks got the game-winner at 18:30 of the third period on Versteeg’s shot from left of the goal that left Luongo flattened. Patrick Kane added an empty-netter with 48 seconds to play.
“I thought (Luongo) played a real strong game, but I didn’t think there was more net presence against this team or any other team,” said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. “That’s what they do and that’s what we do.”
While conceding that perhaps the Canucks eased up slightly with an early 2-0 lead, Luongo said there was no consolation leaving Chicago with a split.
“No, it’s not,” he said. “We were coming here to win the game. We didn’t come here to split.
“Now it’s a matter of making sure that the next game at home (Wednesday at GM Place) we make some adjustments and we come ready to play.”