– Roberto Luongo
has changed a lot this season, from his goalie coach and positioning to his leadership role on the Vancouver Canucks
– and as a result, he's in a position he's never been in before. But as he prepares for his first Western Conference Finals, Luongo is no stranger to the pressures or criticism that comes with being on one of hockey's biggest stages.
Fans in Vancouver have thrown everything possible Luongo's way, from "He's making too much money," to "He's not the best option in goal." Then there's the Olympic gold medal -- which some, to this day, insist Canada won in spite of Luongo, not because of his play.
But through it all, the Montreal native has answered his critics. He's now set to take the next step in his career.
"I've waited my whole life to be in a situation like this and just going to take advantage of it and enjoy the moment," the 32-year-old said Saturday. "It's going to be exciting. Conference final for the first time for me against a team that has some skill up front, it's a fun time for me to be playing hockey.
"I've been waiting a long time to be in this position and I'm just going to go out there and have fun."
Luongo has also faced adversity in these playoffs, having been pulled in Games 4 and 5 of the first round against Chicago and then being benched to start Game 6. But in what's becoming true to form for Luongo, he bounced back in Game 7, having one of his best games of these playoffs as the Canucks eliminated the Hawks.
Throughout his ups and downs Luongo's had the backing of his teammates.
"I think that criticism was maybe a little unfair. The couple if games where he got pulled, as a team we didn't play well," center Ryan Kesler
said. "He's been our backbone. He's been strong all year and he's having fun and he's confident with his game.
"We're confident that he's going to be there for us this round."
The product of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is 8-5 in these playoffs with a .917 save percentage and a 2.25 goals-against average. During the regular season, Luongo had his best save percentage (.928) and GAA (2.11) since joining the Canucks in a trade from Florida prior to the 2006-07 season.
"He's been great leader, great competitor since the day I got here," said GM Mike Gillis, who helped implement some of this season's changes, including bringing in a new goalie coach in Roland Melanson
, who moved Luongo further back in the net. Gillis also presided over Luongo's decision to step down as captain last summer, removing some of the pressure of leadership from his goaltender's shoulders.
"I think his growth as a professional and as a player has been the signs of somebody who is committed to being the best and even though changes are difficult to accept at times or perhaps not as understood as you'd like, he embraced them from the moment we decided to make some changes. He's worked at it and he's a better goalie for it."
tanding between Luongo and his first Stanley Cup Final appearance is a familiar foe. Antti Niemi
was part of the reason the Canucks were bounced by the Blackhawks for the second consecutive year, in the second round, last spring.
"I think he doesn't get enough credit," Kesler said of Niemi, who signed with the Sharks as a free agent last summer after leading the Hawks to their first Cup since 1961. "He's a very good goalie. We're going to have to play him like we played Rinne. We're going to have to get traffic in front of him. Our 'D' are going to need to get their shots through. We need forwards getting second and third chances.
"That's the way we're going to have to play this."