CALGARY – Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo admitted Wednesday night that even at 34 years of age, a veteran over 700 NHL games, you’re never too old or experienced to get the butterflies.
In his first start in over three weeks, and an unexpected one at that, Luongo made 40 saves to backstop the Canucks to a 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames.
“Go figure, after 12 years in the league that you’re still nervous to play a game but it was an important game for me,” said Luongo, whose role on the Canucks has morphed into backing up Cory Schneider.
Schneider had made 11 straight starts before sitting out on Wednesday with a sudden ailment.
“I wanted to make sure I gave the team a chance to win and the boys battled hard and I got rewarded in the third with some goals,” said Luongo.
Tied 1-1 after two periods, Luongo stopped all 18 shots he faced in the final 20 minutes, many of them early in the period as Calgary poured on the pressure.
“It hasn’t been easy, I’m not going to lie. But you want to stay prepared and make sure if something happens like today that you’re ready to go,” said the Canucks’ all-time leader in wins. “I went through a lot in the last few weeks. So I really wanted to really make sure that I showed the guys that I’m here for the rest of the year and I’m 100 per cent dedicated.”
Luongo was also the centre of attention all night for the sell-out Scotiabank Saddledome crowd of 19,289, which included numerous throngs of fans wearing Canucks jerseys. Every time Luongo made a save, boos mixed with “Lou’s” rained down from the crowd.
“It’s fun, it’s like that in most buildings, either because we have a lot of Canucks fans or because people don’t like us,” said Luongo, who improves to 8-4-3..
The crowd really got charged up in a sequence midway through the third. Mikael Backlund’s shot off the wing was stopped, and as the rebound kicked into the air and was batted at the net by Glencross, Luongo jabbed out his glove with some flourish and snatched it out of the air.
“That was kind of a lucky save, the puck went up in the air on the rebound and he just batted it out the air and it just so happened to go in my glove,” said Luongo. “Sometimes it’s good to be lucky.”
Maxim Lapierre broke the tie at 12:37 of the third, swatting Andrew Ebbett’s centring pass behind Miikka Kiprusoff.
Mason Raymond and Daniel Sedin followed, making it three goals in less than five minutes to give Vancouver its 10th win in its last 12 games.
Raymond tipped his hat to the professionalism Luongo has shown despite all the trade rumours, criticism of his contract and being relegated to a back-up role.
“It’s incredible what he’s gone through this year. Having not played a lot then to come in and play the way he did tonight was fantastic,” said Raymond.
Alex Burrows also scored for Vancouver (23-11-6). The Canucks, who began a five-game road trip, opened up a six-point lead atop the Northwest Division over the Minnesota Wild. They will also make stops in Colorado, Nashville, St. Louis and Dallas.
“A lesson learned for us from tonight is there is no easy game,” said Raymond. “Guys are fighting for jobs here in Calgary, other teams are trying to make a push for the playoffs, other teams are making a push for the division lead or whatever so you have to prepare as a player and as a team like every game is a playoff game at this time of year.”
Curtis Glencross has his team-leading 15th goal for Calgary (14-21-4), which has lost six of its last seven. The Flames remain tied with the Florida Panthers for second-last in the NHL. They are one point up on the Colorado Avalanche, who shocked the Anaheim Ducks 4-1 on Wednesday.
The Flames were playing their first game at home since suffering a lethargic 8-2 rout at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers last Wednesday on the NHL trade deadline.
The Flames went on the road after that and, boosted by a string of AHL call-ups, in some cases due to injury, they turned in three much better efforts including last Saturday when they lost to the Canucks 5-2 despite outshooting them 38-22.
“I thought it was two pretty good efforts against a pretty good team,” said Flames centre Max Reinhart, 21 who picked up his first NHL point with an assist–it coming in his third NHL game. “They’ve gotten good goaltending both times as we’ve thrown quite a bit of shots their way.”
Kiprusoff had 25 stops for the Flames to fall to 6-13-2. The 36-year-old Finn entered the night ranked last in the NHL with an .873 save percentage and second-last with a 3.58 goals-against average.
Schneider was so sick that the Canucks arranged to dress University of Calgary goaltender Dustin Butler as their backup goaltender.
“It must be an awesome feeling to have something like that happen,” said Luongo. “We tried to get him in there in the last minute or so but couldn’t get a whistle.”
Notes: LW Steve Begin (upper body) was shaken up early in the first period and did not return for Calgary…It was Reinhart’s first assist as a Flame. His dad Paul’s last point as a Flame, also an assist, was nearly 25 years ago (Mar. 25, 1988)…Calgary C Blair Jones dressed in place of Matt Stajan (upper body). Jones was recalled on an emergency basis from Abbotsford (AHL) on Tuesday. Jiri Hudler (upper body) missed his second game…Butler, who wore jersey No. 30, practised with many of the Flames players during their informal ice times during the lockout.