VANCOUVER – It’s that time of year again for Roberto Luongo.
The Vancouver Canucks goaltender, a notorious slow starter, is going through his usual October funk. He spent his second day in a row Thursday talking about his annual rite of fall as the Vancouver Canucks prepared to meet the Nashville Predators.
But Luongo, who backstopped the Canucks to the Stanley Cup final last spring, vowed not to change his game or his routine.
“It’s just about work, man,” Luongo said before facing the Predators. “You’ve just got to work in practice and just roll up your sleeves and get to work and get out of it as quick as possible.”
The barrage of criticism started after the New York Rangers stole a 4-0 victory from the Canucks on Tuesday as Henrik Lundqvist posted a 40-save shutout. Luongo had shut out the Rangers for two periods as Vancouver limited New York to nine shots but felt the wrath of fans soon after allowing Mike Rupp’s opening goal on a bang-bang play on which he could not be faulted.
Slow starts have dogged the Canucks goalie throughout his career.
“It hasn’t just been since I’ve been in Vancouver,” said Luongo, now in his sixth campaign with the Canucks. “It’s the way I’ve always been through my whole career. It’s not something I enjoy or am proud of. But at the same time, it’s better to have a little down time at the beginning of the year or somewhere in the middle or the end.”
Luongo, who also struggled at times in the first round of the 2010-11 playoffs as well as the Stanley Cup final, said he has tried “different formulas” over the years to try and get out of his doldrums. But none have worked.
“I’m a big believer that you’ve got to work hard in practice, and I’ve been doing that,” he said. “Obviously, I’m not exactly where I want to be. But, you know what? That’s going to come. I’m not worried about it.”
Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne, whose team lost to Vancouver in the second round last season, feels the criticism against the 2010-11 Vezina Trophy finalist is undeserved and he has “no doubt that he’s going to be a great goalie again this year.”
He attributed the intense criticism Luongo is facing to the extra scrutiny players face in a Canadian market.
“Obviously, the media coverage and everything like that, it’s much greater than for us, for example, down in Nashville,” said Rinne. “It depends also on the individual, how you take that. He’s an experienced guy. I’m sure he handles it very well. It’s only five, six games into the season.”
Preds defenceman Jon Blum, who played junior in Vancouver with the WHL’s Giants and lives here in the off-season, is used to seeing Luongo’s early struggles. Blum said Luongo’s large annual salary also factors in. But he gets a lot of support in the locker-room and knows how to handle the pressure.
“I guess the fans are all on him, and the media and stuff like that, but he is a proven goalie,” said Blum. “He had one of his best years last year and he’s a world-class goalie. He’ll rebound.”
Luongo’s struggles have drawn comparisons to those faced by retired Calgary goaltender Mike Vernon before he helped the Flames win the 1989 Stanley Cup. Vernon, a Calgary native, who was often booed by fans who showed no mercy for the hometown kid.
Terry Crisp, now a colour commentator on Predators game telecasts who coached Calgary to the Cup, said the criticism Luongo is facing is too “knee-jerk” and fans should “have a little faith.” The criticism is no different than any goaltender faces during the course of the season.
“Right now, it’s Luongo,” said Crisp. “One night it’ll be Tim Thomas up in Boston or Pekka Rinne there. Every goalie has those (games). Coaches know it. Players know it. The only ones who can’t accept it are we, the media, but it sure makes a good story for us, I guess.”
Recalling Luongo’s strong play against the Preds last spring, Crisp said Luongo knows how to handle the firestorm and “will be there in the end.”
“If he’s struggling in October, I sure love what he’s doing in May,” said Crisp.
If Luongo needs a good-luck charm, he might have one in a new mask that bears illustrations of the mountains and ocean surrounding Vancouver as well as a variation of the club’s historic Johnny Canuck logo. The mask gained the attention of at least one teammate.
“Yeah, I saw it,” said centre Ryan Kesler. “He said he was going green—whatever that means.”
Meanwhile, struggling Canucks winger Mikael Samuelsson, who underwent off-season groin and sports-hernia surgery after being hurt in the playoffs, was pulled from the lineup Thursday because of lingering effects of theinjury.
Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said he gave Samuelsson a “maintenance day” and pencilled in Marco Sturm, the Canucks top free-agent signing, who was scratched against the Rangers because of inconsistent play.
“(Samuelsson) was 100 per cent during training camp and for the first couple of days,” said Vigneault. “Lately, he’s been feeling just a little bit stiff.”
Samuelsson usually plays the point on Vancouver’s power-play unit. Vigneault moved defenceman Sami Salo into that slot from his usual second-unit post.