There were plenty of reasons that the Vancouver Canucks lost Game 6 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals. Anytime a team loses 7-5, there’s plenty of blame to go around. From the Canucks perspective, the defensive effort was obviously less than spectacular. There were a couple of questionable calls—which was a killer considering the Blackhawks power play was 3 for 4 on the night. But let’s be real: officials didn’t cost the Canucks 7 goals. You can take a look at the Blackhawks crashing the net or you can look at their 2 young superstars coming through in the clutch. But as impressive as Jonathan Toews’ 2 goals and Patrick Kane’s Hat Trick were, there was something bigger at work.
No, the biggest reason the Canucks lost was because Roberto Luongo was
bad. No, scratch that—Luongo was awful. Any team that is on the brink of elimination needs their goaltender to be their best player on the ice. I know there are unrealistically high expectations for Luongo all over North America, but I don’t think anyone expected him to give up 7 goals on 30 shots. Worse than that, he gave up 4 goals on only 9 shots in the all important 3rd period. Some of the goals weren’t his fault—some were deflections, some were screens and some were just amazing shots. But that doesn’t change the fact that great goaltenders MAKE the save when the game (or season) is on the line. Do you think that Ken Dryden, Billy Smith or Patrick Roy could see every shot they encountered in their playoff career? Do you think they never had to deal with a bad break, bad bounce or bad call that went against them? Do you think they never had an opponent’s energy line take runs into the crease? Think again.
What made those goaltenders special is that they were able to lead their team to victory IN SPITE of the adversity. On the occasions that they lost a big game, we were all surprised. I’ll be honest: I like watching the Vancouver Canucks and I think it’s pretty easy to make the argument that Roberto Luongo is the best goaltender of the last 5 years. But (and this is a big but), I can’t say that I’m terribly shocked that he had a meltdown in Game 6 when the season was on the line.
If someone told me that Luongo was going to give up a few soft goals and the Canucks were going to lose by a couple of goals, I would believe them without hesitation. You can say what you want; You’re welcomed to make any argument that you please—but the fact remains that he fulfilled my expectations. Unfortunately, he did what I thought he’d do. Would you have expected Grant Fuhr to play like this in HIS prime? Exactly.
All you have to do is look to the other end of the ice to see the difference. Nikolai Khabibulin has been a wildly inconsistent goaltender throughout his career. He’ll show flashes of greatness in the playoffs (mostly during his contract years) that help earn him enormous paydays. But then he’ll hibernate for years at a time—so badly in fact, that the Blackhawks felt like they had to go out and procure Cristobal Huet on the free agent market last summer. Not even the Blackhawks management had faith that he’d be able to get it together for the season. But when push came to shove in Game 6, I had more faith in Khabibulin that he would come through in the clutch than I did in Luongo. All I had to do was go back to Game 6 of the Calgary Flames/Chicago Blackhawks series to see what Khabibulin is capable of when all the chips are on the table. He went into the Saddledome and stole the game for his team—he outplayed Miikka Kiprusoff once again in the playoffs.
He might have had the most impressive 5 goal game I’ve ever seen for a goaltender. He made a few highlight reel saves in the 3rd period (despite giving up 2 goals in the period). He was fighting through screens, making huge glove saves and battling to keep the puck out of the net even on the craziest of deflections. He did exactly what the Canucks needed Luongo to do. It’s not always how many saves you make—but WHEN you make them.
But on the flip side, you can’t give up 7 goals either. No matter how you cut it, Luongo let down his team in the worst way on the biggest stage. I’ll be honest, I was hoping for a Game 7 in Vancouver on Thursday night. It really didn’t matter to me who won the series, but it would have been great to see a Game 7 atmosphere in Canada this season. If Luongo wilted under the pressure of the United Center in Chicago, just imagine how it might have been at GM Place in a Game 7! Maybe this was for the best.