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ROY MacGREGOR

Stanley Cup goaltending duel is one for the ages Add to ...

It is the wide smile that says so much more than the words.

“I’m in the final,” Roberto Luongo says. “I guess I’m playing pretty well.”

The smile is to answer the doubters, the clinging suggestion that, even despite that gold-medal victory in the 2010 Winter Games, Luongo has yet to prove he can win the big one.

Well, this is the Big One. Not the first game that he won Wednesday night, not Saturday night’s Game 2, but the coming fourth victory in this Stanley Cup final that will stand as the Big One in Luongo’s career regardless of which team wins it.

If Game 1 – a 1-0 Vancouver Canucks victory over the Boston Bruins with less than 20 seconds left in the game – is a precursor of what is to come, this final series has the potential be one for the ages: a goaltending duel the likes of which has rarely been seen.

Luongo was perfect on Wednesday night, sliding as smoothly from post to post as a table-top goaltender, always in position, rebounds smothered, his clearings smart. The Bruins had 36 shots and they could not score. They had six power plays and could not convert.

Tim Thomas in the Boston net was just as good, perhaps even better, flopping madly from side to side, guessing, gambling, in and out of his crease like a prairie dog on caffeine, effective on every one of Vancouver’s 34 opportunities but the last.

One year after hockey minds wrapped their all-knowing tongues around a theory that having a single great goaltender was overrated and overly costly – the Chicago Blackhawks having won the Stanley Cup with a goaltender, Antti Niemi, they immediately discarded, the Philadelphia Flyers having reached the final with a goaltender, Michael Leighton, they shipped back to the minors – big and expensive goalies are back.

Luongo, the game’s highest-paid player at $10-million a season, is up against $6-million man Thomas. They are both finalists for the Vézina Trophy awarded each year to the league’s top goaltender.

They are “the establishment” when it comes to today’s NHL netminding. Not disposable goaltenders.

“That was one of those theories that was thrown out there last year that I didn’t think would stand up to the test of time very long,” Thomas said.

“I think this year’s proved it.”

The two goaltenders are a wonderful study in contrast, and not just in style: Luongo playing a more-traditional, systematic and modified butterfly, the freelancing Thomas largely making it up as he goes.

Luongo is 32 and Canadian, Montreal born, while 37-year-old Thomas is an American from Flint, Mich. Luongo was a star young, with expectations high; Thomas was a college player lost in the minors, an unexpected late bloomer.

Luongo is polite and thoughtful but sometimes brooding, often sitting along in his cone of silence after a loss until he can ready himself to face the media. Thomas is so happy-go-lucky that, moments after he had lost Wednesday’s heartbreaker with less than 20 seconds to go, he was holding court in the Boston dressing room, laughing loudly at a reporter’s question that tickled him rather than ticked him off.

Where both are curiously similar lies in a tendency to, every once in a while, sort of fall apart on the ice. While each can make saves that simply takes the breath away, both can allow a goal every now and then that leaves their fans gasping.

It all makes for the most marvellous matchup, one where the outcome could conceivably be decided by which of the two goaltenders is best, or luckiest, or both. If one of them emerges as the deciding factor, which is entirely possible, then the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP could go to a goaltender for the 15th time since it was first awarded in 1965.

Since Patrick Roy won the trophy in 1993 while leading the Montreal Canadiens to this country’s last Stanley Cup, goaltenders have taken the prize five times, the most recent being Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

Should Thomas claim the ultimate playoff honour for a goaltender, it would mark only the fifth time that a non-Canadian has taken the award and only the second time for an American player (Brian Leetch having won it in 1994 with the New York Rangers.) Much will depend on the confidence each carries on in this series, as both had their off moments in previous engagements: Luongo struggling in Games 4 and 5 against Chicago, Thomas porous at times against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

And confidence, as all goaltenders, all their coaches and all their teammates know, is a fragile condition. “You start to take the goals very personally,” Hall-of-Fame goaltender Ken Dryden has said of the playoffs. “Every one of them.”

“If you lose,” Frank (Ulcers) McCool, who played in the war years, once said, “the fans blame the goalie and the reporters take up the cry. After a while, the other players believe what they read and the goalie feels like it’s one man against the world.”

At the moment, however, it is two men against the reality that one will win and one must lose.

And against the greater reality that these two weeks in June, 2011 could very well hold the signature measure of their careers.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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