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Slow start, criticism doesn't derail Luongo

by Kevin Woodley / Vancouver Canucks

Roberto Luongo has rediscovered his game -- just in time to return to the place where it seemed to disintegrate.

The Canucks' goaltender doesn't draw the same straight line as many observers between his Jekyll-and-Hyde performances in the Stanley Cup Final in June -- mostly brilliant on home ice, brutal in Boston -- and another horrific start to the regular season.

Luongo has always struggled in October, though rarely as badly as this season. But as the Canucks return to his personal House of Horrors to face the Bruins on Saturday for the first time since losing the Cup to them in seven games, Luongo said the biggest carryover was in the way some fans in Vancouver reacted to his annual early-season slump.

It wasn't easy being booed at home games, and lambasted on local sports talk radio, Luongo told But in the midst of all that often-vitriolic angst he remembered to smile again, and his game soon followed the corners of his mouth upward.

"Of course it's hard sometimes, I'm not going to lie or deny it," Luongo said of the early season critics. "I think I do a good job 95 percent of the time, but there's that odd time certain things get to you and that's just the human side. This year was harder than usual because of what happened last year, but after a while you just have to focus on your job and not worry about it. And I started having fun again, even when I was struggling. You have to, that's what this game is all about and we don't play in the NHL forever, so we gotta enjoy it while we are here. And that's when things started to turn around."

Luongo is 10-2-1 as a starter and stopping 93.9 percent of the shots he's seen since coming back from injury in late November -- his frightening .869 save percentage on Halloween forgotten by most as he rediscovered his game and reclaimed his starting job. For all the talk of a simple smile, the technical tweaks he needed may have just been hiding a little further out of his crease, with his glove hand raised slightly, like a grade school student not totally sure he knows the answer.
Comfortable with both adjustments now, Luongo is coming up with most of them.

Luongo's return to form -- he also posted a .939 save percentage between New Year's and the playoffs last season -- coincides with getting comfortable with the slight technical and tactical changes in his game, but it actually started on the bench watching superb second-year backup Cory Schneider continue an impressive roll that started in his absence.

Among the things Luongo saw from there was a decision by Schneider and goaltending coach Roland Melanson to be more aggressive at times. After pulling both goalies back in the crease last season, Melanson wants them at the edge of the blue ice -- even past it -- against rush chances or when opponents have little option but to shoot. It's a read made easier by improving defensive play after some looser-than-usual team tendencies early.

"It all depends on the way the game evolves around you," Luongo said. "We're playing well as a team, so we know the guys will be taking care of backdoors and that stuff, and we can focus more on the shot and maybe challenge a little bit more on the rush."

Luongo, whose overall save percentage has climbed to .917 during a streak that actually started just before the injury, said extra practice time with Melanson while Schneider was starting seven straight -- five ahead of a healthy Luongo -- is paying off. He also got more comfortable with a higher, more forward glove positioning they instituted at the start of the season in an effort to get his glove off his hip and free up his catching hand.

It was a natural next step after last season's move back in the crease, a retreat designed to shorten the distances Luongo had to move the size-15 feet that limit his natural skating ability, but one that also left the top corners of the net more exposed. No longer able to cover those angles with a shrug of his broad shoulders, the higher glove position removes some visual temptation for shooters. Long common among Scandinavian stoppers like Henrik Lundqvist and Niklas Backstrom, and increasingly taught in North America the last decade -- Schneider, 25, has always used a "fingers up" approach -- the altered glove position also gets Luongo's elbow out from behind his hip, and re-activates his trapper.

"I don't think about it anymore," Luongo said. "It's just habit now, it's really comfortable for me to have it there, and I feel I can get to more pucks when they are up high."

Like the deeper position last season, Luongo trusted the change would be worth it in the long run and was willing to live with additional early-season struggles as he adjusted. He was not, however, as well-prepared for the criticism that came with it, even after six years in a city former general manager Brian Burke once dubbed a "goalie graveyard."

"You have to care about certain things, like winning, your teammates and performing, but you can't care about that other stuff because that's going to make it worse," he said.

And Luongo has learned to trust that, with practice, he will get better given time.

"It's kind of like a baseball hitter," he said. "The first month some guys struggle to keep an eye on the ball and it's a matter of making reads and getting in the flow of things, and sometimes I just need that time. I've tried different approaches every year and it always comes back to the same thing. It's not something I like and it's tough to go through, but as long as you keep your head up and work hard, it's all about what happens from here on out."

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