What do Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur, Henrik Lundqvist and Miikka Kiprusoff have in common? All four are outstanding workhorse goaltenders that have flamed out down the stretch or in the playoffs in recent seasons.
Before this season, Roberto Luongo was included in that conversation. But thanks to the helping hand of his new backup, Vancouver hopes less regular season starts for Luongo can equal (big) playoff success.
Since the lockout, the importance of having an elite goaltender in the postseason has diminished. Gone are the days of Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy and Brodeur dominating the ‘second season.’ Instead, theoretically, all you need is a hot goaltender at the right time to go far come April and May. Just look at Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit from recent postseasons.
Talent wise, Luongo is an elite goaltender in the NHL; when he’s on, there’s not many better than Vancouver’s pillar. The problem, though, has been getting Luongo playing at his top-notch level at playoff time.
The soon-to-be 32-year-old hasn’t been the problem for the Canucks’ disappointing exits in recent postseasons. You can go no further than a combination of bad matchups (see: Chicago), poor discipline and, yes, Luongo’s inconsistencies.
Luongo has not always struggled in the playoffs. In fact, in his first postseason with the Canucks back in 2007, he carried the team to round two. Even in the first round against St. Louis in 2009, Luongo was brilliant. But it’s the last three playoff series he’s been involved in that has given him the label of a poor playoff performer.
Against Chicago in 2009, then Los Angeles and those same Blackhawks in 2010, Luongo boasted a shoddy 3.32 goals-against average and .890 save percentage while hearing his name serenaded in both cities. In the three successful aforementioned series, Luongo’s numbers were a lot better – 1.63 goals-against average and .946 save percentage.
Rookie backup Cory Schneider has made it easier for head coach Alain Vigneault to give Luongo some much-needed relief this year. Schneider has a 13-3-2 record in 18 starts and is a solid bet to see that number eclipse 20. That means Luongo, who relinquished his captaincy before the season, would start around 60 games (on pace for 62), which could help his chances of improving come playoff time.
In the past two seasons, Luongo has started 54 and 67 games, respectively. However, he battled injuries in that time and was forced, once healthy, to play every night down the stretch. In 2008-09, he started 35 of his team’s final 37 games after returning from a groin injury. Last year was much of the same following a rib injury.
Thanks to Schneider – an obvious upgrade to previous backups Andrew Raycroft, Curtis Sanford and Jason LaBarbera – the Canucks have not had to lean on Luongo as much this season.
Possibly as a result, Luongo is putting up great numbers for the NHL’s best through mid-March. His co-league-leading 33 wins, career-best 2.23 GAA and solid .925 save percentage have his name in the Vezina Trophy discussion.
With the streaking Canucks running away with the conference and division leads, as well as the Presidents’ Trophy, Vigneault will be able to give Schneider some more starts down the stretch if needed.
Miller, Brodeur, Lundqvist and Kiprusoff have all started 70-plus games on a somewhat-regular basis since the lockout. None of them have reached the Stanley Cup final. The most number of games any Cup-winning goaltender in the last five years has started is 62, done by Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury in 2009. The last five have averaged 45 regular season starts for their respective clubs.
Thanks to more nights off than usual, Luongo hopes he can carry his A-game into the playoffs without wearing down. Will this postseason be any different for him after starting fewer games and not having the added burden of the captaincy? Luongo, and only Luongo himself, will answer that question. Of course, it does not hurt that he has a great team in front of him.
With the Canucks dreaming big in their awfully successful 40th anniversary season, they’ll need Luongo to be as sharp as ever (and overcome his springtime woes) if they wish to claim their first ever Stanley Cup.
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