VANCOUVER, B.C. – For about 20 minutes Wednesday, Roberto Luongo held centre stage in the Canucks dressing room.
The Vancouver goaltender, still dripping with sweat from practice, stood in his underwear, patiently answering questions into a sea of television cameras and microphones.
“Winning fuels me,” said the Canuck captain. “That’s what I like.”
When the Chicago Blackhawks finished their practice, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin quickly changed and disappeared into a back room. He later appeared, wearing dress slacks and a bright yellow sweater, to spend about seven minutes with the few reporters who waited for him.
Different goaltenders. Different styles.
The two men are a big reason the Canucks and Blackhawks will meet in Thursday’s first game of the NHL Western Conference semifinal (9 p.m. EST). The play of one will likely be a deciding in factor in which team advances to the conference final.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series will be played Saturday (9 p.m.). The series moves to Chicago for Games 3 Tuesday and Game 4 Thursday.
Luongo was rock solid in the Canucks’ first-round, four-game sweep of St. Louis. He allowed just five goals, recorded his first playoff shutout, and never was scored on in the third period.
After one of Luongo’s brilliant stops, the Blues’ Brad Boyes looked skyward, maybe seeking some divine help.
One of the keys for the young Blackhawks will be not letting Luongo intimidate and frustrate them.
“I think you just keep firing pucks and hopefully one goes by,” said defenceman Brian Campbell. “He’s one of the best in the league, if not the best.
“We are going to have to find ways to get in front of him and screen him to get shots past him. If he sees it, he’s going to stop it a lot of times.”
Luongo is used to being bumped in his crease. During Vancouver’s final regular season game against Chicago – a 4-0 Canuck victory – Dustin Byfuglien cross-checked him in the face. That resulted in a brawl.
“I’m sure there will be some heavy traffic, a few bumps here and there,” said Luongo, 30. “Just like the last series, it’s going to be my job to battle through those things and make sure, even if there is interference, you have to try and hold your ground and make the saves.”
Byfuglien shrugged when asked about his hit on Luongo.
“It was part of the game,” he said. “That is in the past. Now we have to move on.
“He’s a big goalie. We have to get as much traffic and get under his skin as much as we can.”
Luongo comes into the series leading the playoffs with a 1.15 goals-against average and .962 save percentage. Khabibulin is saddled with a 2.52 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage.
Khabibulin was up and down against the Calgary as the Blackhawks needed six games to dispose of the Flames. He didn’t play well in Games 3 and 4 in Calgary, leading to speculation backup Cristobal Huet could see action in Game 5.
Khabibulin rebounded to win Game 5 and was outstanding in Game 6, stopping 43 shots in a 4-1 victory.
“As a team we played a lot better,” said the 36-year-old Russian, who won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. “Everybody did their job.”
The Canucks are a team Khabibulin has a history of having trouble winning against. He career record against Vancouver is 6-16-3. He is 0-9-1 in his last nine games.
“Sometimes that’s the way it goes,” he shrugged. “Tomorrow is a new game and it starts 0-0.”
Vancouver forward Kyle Wellwood said no one on the Canucks is taking Khabibulin lightly.
“He’s capable of winning a series like he did against Calgary,” said Wellwood. “You try and do the same things, get in front of him and beat him when you get a chance.
“When ever you have a goalie who has been around this long, and who has won a Stanley Cup, you don’t could them out. Some of these goalies are capable of stealing games. I’m sure Chicago is looking at him to do that for them.”
Khabibulin can be reserved sometimes when dealing with the media, but Campbell said he’s a good influence in the dressing room.
“Once you get to know him a little better, he’s fun to be around,” said Campbell. “He’s a good guy to have in the locker room, especially with such a young team.
“He’s very easy going, very light.”
One edge Khabibulin holds over Luongo is playoff experience. He has played 63 career playoff games, compared to Luongo’s 16.
“Once you go through it, you know what it takes,” said Khabibulin. “Sometimes, especially when things are not going well, you have something to fall back on. I think it’s a big thing.
“You’re not going to be great every game. The team is not going to play great every game. Next time you just have to come back and start over. When you have experience, you know what it’s like.”
Luongo spent six years in the NHL before he had the chance to appear in the playoffs. He said his five seasons in Florida, before being traded to Vancouver in June 2006, were a drain.
“I’ve always been looking for this,” said Luongo. “You can ask anybody around me, those were tough days. Every year I was telling my wife ‘I don’t know how much longer I can take this.’
“I enjoy winning, not only at hockey but anything I do. Losing is not something I enjoy.”