VANCOUVER – Roberto Luongo silenced his critics Tuesday night.
After causing Vancouver fans anxiety most of the past week, Luongo was almost flawless as the Canucks edged the Chicago Blackhawks 2-1 in overtime in the seventh and deciding game of their Western Conference quarter-final series.
Luongo made 31 saves to erase the doubts any fans might have felt after he allowed 13 goals in his previous three games.
“The last four games, I feel like I’ve been tested,” Luongo said. “You find ways. We always say that, tough times, that’s when you see true character of somebody. Obviously, it was a big game for my career tonight.”
Luongo’s most important save came in overtime as he slid across his crease to stop Patrick Sharp while the Canucks were short handed in overtime.
He said the game evoked memories of the gold-medal game of the 2010 Winter Olympics, also played at Rogers Arena, when Canada beat the U.S. in overtime.
“It was pretty much the same game,” said Luongo. “They scored late and we got a huge goal. This one might be better than the Olympics.”
Luongo’s character was questioned after his struggles enabled the 2010-11 Stanley Cup champions to erase a 3-0 series deficit. The Canucks were in danger of becoming only the fourth team in Stanley Cup playoff history to lose a series after winning the first three games.
The unease that many fans had felt returned after Jonathan Toews tied the game 1-1 with 1:56 left in regulation. But Luongo did not let the goal get him down.
When the pressure was on heading into overtime, he recalled the intermission before Canada’s gold-medal triumph.
“I just remembered what it was like in the room,” Luongo said. “Both times, it was quiet. Not a lot of guys said something, but the few words that were said were meaningful.”
What was said this time?
“Somebody is going to be a hero in here. This is what legends are made of. This is what it’s all about. I said, ‘This is Game 7, O.T., it doesn’t get any better than that. This is what we dream of as a kid and…somebody’s going to become a hero.'”
But this time, he felt more comfortable, because he had been through such a high-pressure experience before.
“I just took a breather and I just focused for O.T.,” Luongo said. “It had been something I’d been through before, so I think it was easier for me to prepare for that and make sure that come O.T., that’s when you make your big save.”
Some had begun to question how long he would remain with the club if they had been eliminated in the opening round, especially since the Canucks, celebrating their 40th season in the NHL, were favoured to win their first Stanley Cup.
In Game 6, coach Alain Vigneault opted to go with rookie Cory Schneider, who had never started a playoff game before. When Schneider suffered cramps while allowing a goal on a penalty shot, Luongo replaced him–but surrendered the overtime winner.
Still, Luongo said, the Game 6 experience helped him deal with the pressure he was facing.
“It was not an easy task,” he said. “It was tough for a few days, obviously. I think the best thing that could have happened to me was probably going in late in Game 6 and just make saves.”
Vigneault said he never hesitated to go with Luongo in Game 7. The coach insisted Schneider’s insertion the previous game was just a gut feeling to give the team momentum.
Luongo, however, showed why he is being paid US$10 million this season.
“(Luongo) was real good,” said Vigneault. “He played a great game, like we thought he could.”
But, unlike with the 2010 Olympic gold-medal victory, the feeling from Tuesday’s series-clinching win does not last forever.
“It’s nice, to be honest,” Luongo said. “But it’s only the first round. We’ve got a long way to go.”