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Luongo wants to make most of his time in playoffs

by Larry Wigge / Vancouver Canucks
It was in the waning days of the regular season. Teammate Ryan Johnson asked goalie Roberto Luongo to look up at the scoreboard. There was a look of surprise in his deep-set, dark eyes. Then a bit of a smile and shake of his head.

It was about eight hours before the start of the game, during the morning skate in Phoenix and the shot clock was already registering 67 shots for the Coyotes.

"Wow!" said Luongo, not looking at the possibility of an omen. "Hey R.J., I think I had a few of those when we were in Florida. Remember?"

Quick wit. Quiet confidence. That's Roberto Luongo.

Johnson was relating this little anecdote to us the other day, when he recalled how the 6-foot-3, 206-pound goaltender has grown up since starting his career with the woeful New York Islanders and Florida Panthers. For six seasons, he stopped pucks coming at him from all angles, through screens, keeping his angle against deflections on shots that came at him from 50-100 mph.

"I've never been around a guy like Louie," Ryan explained. "So mature, yet focused at every practice to get better. So driven from the first day I met him with some of those bad Florida teams we were on. He's a star in this League, but he still spends as much time at practice still striving for more success.

"This is his time."

And Luongo isn't going to waste the opportunity he has had in leading the Vancouver Canucks, who accomplished their first playoff sweep in that first-round series against the St. Louis Blues. It was a series in which Luongo stopped 126 of 131 shots -- an unheard of .962 save percentage.

"You play all your career to perform in the playoffs," he said, eyes twinkling with excitement, even after he was asked to stop 18 shots in overtime and 49 for the game in a 3-2 sudden-death thriller. "I dreamed as a kid of playing in the NHL, playing in the playoffs and playing in an overtime game in the playoffs. All eyes on you ... and my first playoff game two years ago went four overtimes. What a rush! Extra pressure makes you want to thrive even more."

You can feel the fire in his voice, can't you? The fight of a champion. The hunger to win.

Ever since he was the fourth pick in the 1997 Entry Draft, the expectations for this Montreal native have been through the roof. Roberto doesn't mind that everyone expects him to handle the pressure that comes along with the job of stopping pucks that come at him from all angles. He expects it of himself.

"Oh, that comes with the job," Luongo says matter of factly. "When you're the goaltender, you're always a bit in the spotlight. That's what goaltending is all about. You're relied on heavily every night to make the saves.

"In the playoffs, there's even more of a spotlight. Every play is so important. It can change not only the game but the series."

For Luongo, there's no agenda other than winning ... and winning in Vancouver -- even if some Vancouver reporters suggest he's just playing out the string until he can become a free agent after next season, when he can choose where he wants to play. All that's on Roberto's mind now is the second round and the Chicago Blackhawks ... and then the next round ... and the next.

Luongo, regarded as one of the top goalies in the world, is under an intense microscope as he opens only his second postseason. In 2007, his only playoff with the Canucks since arriving in a 2006 trade, Luongo was only 5-7. But when your team averaged only 1.52 goals of support, it's hard to win with a microscopic 1.77 goals-against average in 12 playoff games.

Vancouver is back in the playoffs this season as the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, and Luongo is a big reason why. After missing 24 games this season with a groin injury, he was 13-5-2 with a 2.07 GAA, a .926 save percentage and carried back-to-back shutouts into the playoffs.

"He's our best player, everybody knows that. He can win a game by himself," said winger Alex Burrows, who scored three times in the first round, including the series-clincher in overtime. "There's not a lot of shooters that can beat him clean with a shot, even if it's in the slot. We depend on him and, if we play well in front of him, it's going to make it easier on us."

No pressure. Just stop everything, Roberto.

"I feel this is the best chance that I've ever had in the NHL," Luongo said. "This is an exciting opportunity for us. We have a real chance here to do some damage. We're playing for one goal and that's the Cup.

"That's what everyone talks about: How many rings do you have? It would be nice to go through a career with at least one Stanley Cup, no? I assume half of my career is done with and I haven't even come close. Time is ticking."

When you're a goaltender, you learn to look beyond what's in your sight. There are often a half-dozen legs and arms between you and the shooter ... and your job is to be in a position to stop the puck no matter where it comes from, no matter how many deflections, how many screens. And Roberto Luongo's vision of where he's at and what he wants is very clear.

It all goes back to a young Roberto making saves right along with Edmonton's Grant Fuhr on the floor of his home in Montreal. For Roberto Luongo, he's got no time to waste after missing the playoffs when he was on Long Island and in South Florida.

That first-round triumph in the playoffs two years ago against Dallas and the second-round loss to Anaheim were part of Roberto's learning curve. Now, he's got that been-there-done-that confidence.

"If you remember the first game of the playoffs two years ago, even though we went into quadruple overtime, it was still 4-4 at the end of regulation," Luongo said of his performance then. "This time, the excitement is just as high because this is a great opportunity for this team. But I'm more aware of what's going on and a bit calmer, if that makes any sense.

"The difference, I would say, is this year I know what's coming. Maybe that helped me a little bit to start the series and hopefully it will carry me the rest of the playoffs."

We all know that a great goaltender can be the great neutralizer in the playoffs. It's time to put Roberto Luongo's name in that mix.


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