Can Luongo save the Vancouver Canucks?

Originally published in Eishockey News in 2006

By Lucas Aykroyd

Although Roberto Luongo resided in Miami, Florida for five years, it hasn’t taken him long to get comfortable with living in Vancouver, Canada this season. “It’s beautiful here,” the 27-year-old Montreal-born goalie told Eishockey News. “You’ve got a bit of everything with the mountains and the ocean and the city life. Sure, it rains a lot, but what are you going to do?” Visiting swanky local restaurants like Tojo’s and Cioppino’s is one of his favorite off-ice pastimes.

But on the ice, there’s still an adjustment period for Luongo, whom the Canucks acquired from Florida along with Lukas Krajicek and a sixth-round pick in exchange for Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen, and Alex Auld in June. “It’s different because I don’t face as many shots as I did in the past,” said Luongo. “With the system we play, we don’t allow a lot of breakdowns. It’s a different kind of game for me to manage.”

Luongo is one of the few NHL players to be hailed as a superstar despite never appearing in a playoff game with either the Panthers or the New York Islanders, where his pro career began in 1999. He has a four-year, $27-million deal with the Canucks. At 190 cm and 90 kg, he’s an imposing figure in the goal crease, and his athleticism, reflexes, and positioning are equally impressive. Luongo entered 2006-07 with a career save percentage of .919, which is astonishing when you consider that he played more than 70 games and faced more than 2,400 shots in each of his last two seasons with Florida.

Vancouver has sometimes been dubbed a “goalie graveyard,” since previous netminders like Auld, Dan Cloutier, Johan Hedberg, Sean Burke, Garth Snow, Arturs Irbe, Felix Potvin, and Kevin Weekes failed to satisfy local critics. Luongo has no intention of becoming the latest casualty.

He appreciates the work of key Vancouver defensemen like Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo, whom he didn’t see that often in the Eastern Conference: “Those are big guys, and they can play the physical game as well as chipping in offensively. It’s nice to have guys like that on your defense.”

But injuries to regulars like Salo, Willie Mitchell, and Rory Fitzpatrick early in November have tested Vancouver’s depth, and Luongo will need to steal some games for the Canucks to stay on track. Still, he’s not too concerned about the team’s lack of scoring punch after Markus Naslund and the Sedin twins.

“Look at a team like Calgary,” said Luongo. “They don’t score that many goals, but they were able to get to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004.”

At the 2005 IIHF World Championship, Czech goalie Tomas Vokoun claimed that the coming reductions in goalie equipment size would “hurt Roberto Luongo-style goalies” who were “more about blocking than skating.” But in practice, Luongo has gotten comfortable with the new NHL standards, now in their second season: “For me personally, it’s actually helped out mobility-wise.”

Four years earlier, Luongo made his senior-level international debut at the World Championship in Germany. Although he broke his finger versus Switzerland and had to head home, he still cherishes a special memory from Hannover’s Preussag Arena: “I got a chance to play my first game [a 3-1 win] against Italy, my country of origin.”

Luongo faced Germany at the 2006 Olympics in a 5-1 Canadian win, and he had a favorable impression of his opponents: “They remind me of the North American style. They’re very physical and aggressive. They may be not as talented as some of the powerhouse nations, but it’s never an easy game against them.”

Talent and hard work have earned Luongo two World Championship gold medals (2003, 2004) and a World Cup title (2004). Now, the young man who was originally inspired to play goal by Grant Fuhr’s spectacular glove saves and stays mentally sharp today by playing poker must aim to replicate his international success in the NHL playoffs. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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