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Carrying Canucks no burden to Luongo

by Brian Compton

Vancouver's Roberto Luongo treats the Canucks' playoff loss to Anaheim last season as a learning experience, using it as motivation to get back again.
Canucks vs. Ducks Game 5 highlights 
It’s been more than eight months since the Vancouver Canucks were ousted by the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference semifinals, but that doesn’t mean Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo has stopped thinking about it.

While it was Luongo’s first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it sure didn’t seem that way. His 5-7 overall record certainly wasn’t indicative of just how phenomenal the 28-year-old was. In those 12 playoff games, Luongo posted a 1.77 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage.

“It’s obviously something that was disappointing,” Luongo said of falling to the Ducks, the eventual Stanley Cup champs. “But at the same time, I look at the big picture. That was my first playoff experience, and I had a blast. It just motivates me more to get back there this year and try to go at it again.”

The Canucks will only go as far as Luongo takes them, but No. 1 told he doesn’t mind carrying the load. As a matter of fact, he basically asks for it.

“There’s always pressure,” Luongo said. “That’s the way it is when you play goal. You always have the pressure to make that save. The game lies in the balance, whether you’re playing well or not. It’s something that I’ve dealt and lived with my whole life, and it’s something that I’m comfortable with. I actually kind of enjoy that pressure and thrive on it a little bit.”

Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell said he sees a lot of New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur in Luongo. Both are quiet. Both would never back down from a challenge. Both want to be the best.

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“If you know Roberto, he’s the most competitive person ever,” Mitchell said. “He’s a quiet guy, but he’s very competitive. Once you get to know him a little bit better, he’s a guy who’ll open up. I was in Jersey for a little bit, so I know how Marty Brodeur is, too, and they’re very much the same. They don’t give up on a shot in practice. They have a passion for the game.”

Luongo proved Mitchell’s theory on Dec. 18. After missing four-straight games with a rib injury, Luongo returned to the lineup at General Motors Place. On the other side of the ice was Brodeur. Rust would certainly be a factor, right? Not exactly. Luongo stopped all 31 shots he faced as Vancouver earned a 5-0 victory.

“Let’s face it, all the best players in the League, of course they match themselves up,” Mitchell said. “As a defensive defenseman, I match myself up against other top defensive defensemen. It’s no different with him when he’s playing against a guy of Marty’s stature. It’s very important for him to play well against those other elite players.”

Luongo admitted he had the jitters prior to the start of the game. The rust he should have experienced during the victory was evident in the practices leading up to the contest, but somehow managed to vanish just as the puck dropped against the Devils.

“I was a little nervous going into that game, because the few practices I had before the game, I wasn’t feeling as sharp as I would have liked to,” Luongo said. “That morning skate before the game, I really felt that it was coming around, and it was a really good confidence booster for that night. It really went well and the guys played really well defensively in front of me.”

But they are going to have to be better. Now 54 games into the 2007-08 season, the Canucks (26-21-7) find themselves battling for their playoff lives. The Canucks are 10th in the West, just two points out of playoff contention overall and are five points back of the Wild in the Northwest standings.

So far, Luongo has appeared in 45 games, winning 22 of them while posting a 2.16 GAA, six shutouts and a .924 save percentage.

"It just motivates me more to get back there this year and try to go at it again."  -- Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo on last year's playoff loss

The heavy work load is nothing new for Luongo. The former first-round pick of the New York Islanders (1997, fourth overall) appeared in 76 regular-season games in 2006-07, which forced Canucks coach Alain Vigneault to answer questions as to whether he was playing Luongo too much. In the end, though, Luongo didn’t show signs of fatigue during last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. His final game of that postseason was a 2-1 overtime loss to the Ducks.

“I think his game right now is like it was during that time,” Vigneault said. “Last year, throughout the season, I kept getting questions about am I playing him too much, and should I be giving him some time off. ‘Louie’ doesn’t like to have time off or days off. As much as I can say he doesn’t need the time off, his best game of the year last year was that last one (Game 5) against Anaheim. That was his 96th game of the year, I think, if you count the exhibition games and the playoff games. That’s a lot of work. He’s a workhorse and he just wants to play. I think last year was his first opportunity at the playoffs. There’s no doubt that he wants to get back in there and have another opportunity.”

When he gets that opportunity, the rest of the Western Conference should be prepared to face a man on a mission. Luongo doesn’t seem to have any problems putting the Canucks on his back and carrying them.

“Now that I’ve felt and lived the playoffs, you know how it works,” Luongo said. “It’s a grueling schedule, and there’re a lot of highs and lows emotionally. But at the same time, I think that’s the beauty of it. Every game is so intense and so important. Any little thing can dictate the series.

“It’s going to be a great battle down to the end, and you’re going to need your goaltenders to be real good,” Vigneault said. “We’re real fortunate to have one of the best – if not the best – in the League.”

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