VANCOUVER, B.C. – Goaltender Roberto Luongo’s confidence is growing because he’s putting more trust in the Vancouver Canucks playing in front of him.
It’s a big change from earlier in the season when the Canucks were 0-3 and Luongo was trying to do too much instead of relying on teammates to clear pucks or check the second man on a two-on-one break-in.
Now he’s back to challenging shooters again and it paid off in a 3-1 win over the woeful Toronto Maple Leafs, the only NHL club without a victory.
“You could tell when there isn’t an option to pass so I just felt comfortable stepping out there, challenging them, and make the save,” Luongo said after stopping 35 shots Saturday.
Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler scored on the power play to stake the Canucks to a 2-1 first-period lead. Raymond’s second goal into an empty net clinched the win.
Niklas Hagman, benched earlier in Toronto’s eight-game stumble, made it close for the desperate Leafs.
Toronto had several odd-man rushes in the first period and mounted a swarming forecheck in the third but still fell to 0-7-1, the worst start to a season in the history of the storied franchise.
The Canucks won for the fifth time in seven games to reach .500 for the first time at 5-5.
The Leafs didn’t make it easy on Luongo but confidence in his teammates was a big help.
“It was a textbook hockey game from our perspective … they were throwing everything on the net and crashing the net but during those spots I thought we did a pretty good job protecting the front of the net,” said Luongo, who feels he’s getting into more of a groove.
“I love playing and the more games I play the better I feel and I’ve been feeling pretty good lately.”
Toronto coach Ron Wilson noticed the change.
“We did everything we had to do except bury the scoring chances we had,” he said.
“If we’d have played Luongo two weeks ago we might have scored six goals but tonight he was on top of things and made a couple of real stretch saves that only a guy like he can make.”
The Leafs have the league’s worst-rated penalty-killing unit and they began by allowing four straight first-period man-advantage situations.
Raymond, who drew both penalties, and Kesler scored two minutes 42 seconds apart – Raymond from a scramble in front of goalie Joey MacDonald and his linemate with a sizzling wrist shot.
Raymond, who seems to be following coach Alain Vigneault’s orders to spend some time in front of the opposition net, was rewarded.
“It’s just kind of the way it worked out,” said Raymond, who also went through traffic to put Alex Burrows’ rebound into the open net with 7.9 seconds remaining.
“You’ve got to have a net presence. It seems that nowadays these goalies are stopping a lot of shots, so for us we’re trying to get in front so they can’t see them and whack in any rebounds that are there.”
Toronto defenceman Mike Komisarek, who appeared to accidentally poke in Raymond’s first goal, said his club deserved more for its effort.
“(A win) was within reach tonight and it was right there,” said Komisarek. “We killed a few (penalties) off, but gradually, it’s going to come back to haunt you.
“Some nights, from the start, we’ve (gotten) behind the 8-ball and the team was deflated. Tonight, no matter what happened out there … the guys battled every shift.”
Luongo turned away Viktor Stalberg when the game was scoreless and denied Ian White on a short-handed break-in.
He also forced Lee Stempniak to shoot wide on another close-in chance before Hagman became the only Leaf to beat him with a power-play wrist shot.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault indicated Luongo’s strong play will earn him his 11th straight start Sunday against Edmonton.
“Obviously, Roberto tonight gave us a chance to win this game,” said Vigneault. “What’s happened to us many times so far this year happened to the Leafs.
“They played a really strong game, they had a lot of scoring chances, but our goaltender was the best goalie on the ice tonight.”
Burrows said the Leafs worked hard but lacked discipline.
“Sometimes you work too hard but not as smart and you shoot yourself in the foot a little bit,” said Burrows.
Notes: The Leafs went six days without a game, their longest layoff since January 1956, excluding the all-star break and the Olympics. … Vancouver won both meetings with the Leafs last season. … the teams will face off again Jan. 30 in Toronto. … Jonas Gustavsson, the six-foot-three rookie Swedish netminder known as Monster, has resumed skating but did not dress Saturday. He’s been out with a groin injury since Oct. 6 against Ottawa.