Never mind the static that Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo gets from his detractors in the stands - he’s also getting plenty of lip from his own teammates.
“I kinda chirped him before the shootout, saying ‘it might be a good time to mix in a win’,” Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa said after Thursday’s 4-3 victory over Montreal.
With friends like those, who needs the bomb throwers on talk radio and in blogdom?
But as the old saying goes, you only make fun of those you like, and on the strength of this game, there is still much for Bieksa and the rest of the Canucks to like about Luongo.
After giving up a goal to Erik Cole in the second period that was blue-cheese stinky - the puck went through his legs - and made the game 3-0 in favour of the home side.
“Obviously the third goal, I wasn’t too happy with myself with that one, but I was able to shut the door afterwards and the boys had a gutsy effort to climb back in the game and tie it up,” said Luongo, who may have had a little extra motivation in that his brother Leo was laid up in a Montreal hospital because of a badly broken arm.
This night was truly a tale of two goalies - three if you consider that the Luongo in the second half of the game bore little resemblance to the version in the late going.
Montreal’s Carey Price, who played manfully but also gave up a goal - to Mason Raymond, that gave Vancouver life - he’d doubtless like another crack at saving.
It doesn’t help matters that Price’s teammates have scored only four goals in 20 shootout opportunities this season, but he still held his hand up after the game.
“Shootouts have been a struggle . . . I’m going to take the heat for it, it comes down to goaltending,” he said.
When it was pointed out to him that the Habs aren’t scoring in the shootout - while Cody Hodgson beat Price, neither David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty nor Michael Cammalleri could outwit Luongo - Price snorted and said “the way we’ve been playing, we’ll probably get 30 more cracks at it.”
So while the Canucks can’t seem to lose even in games where they spot a team a threespot and flirt with a double-digit number of odd-man rushes, the Canadiens conspire to thwart themselves.
“Singles (shootout and overtime points) aren’t helping us right now,” Price said.
True. But the good news is the point brings the Habs level with Washington and New Jersey on points for ninth place, one behind Ottawa, which holds down the final playoff spot.
The Canucks, meanwhile, roll on. They’ve now won eight of their last nine games, and have first-place Minnesota, who are four points ahead, in their sights.
There is of course a lesson in this game for Montreal, which has made a sport out of blowing leads.
On this night - after building a 3-0 lead despite being largely outplayed - the Habs again weren’t able to avoid falling into the trap of trying to protect a lead.
Yes, Luongo was exceedingly generous to his hometown team, yes, the Habs were opportunistic, but no, they didn’t display any evidence that they are about to emerge from the mediocrity that has defined the first two months of their season.
But some credit must also be assigned to the Canucks, who dug themselves out of a 3-0 second-period hole and showed throughout this game that they are not the panicking kind.
There was an inevitability once Sami Salo’s tying power-play marker went into the net with just under five minutes to play - and so it was that Hodgson flipped a forehand into the top corner during the shootout to seal the victory.
Prior to the game, the Canucks’ main preoccupation seemed to be to stamp out any suggestion that they are plagued by a goaltending controversy.
“This is a much bigger deal in the media than it is in this room,” Luongo said.
“It’s not as much of a competition as it is a partnership,” echoed understudy Cory Schneider, who won five straight before yielding to Luongo, he of the 12-year contract.
Added Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault, affirming that Luongo is his number one: “we have two goalies who can do the job, I don’t see a problem.”
You get the picture.
Despite the victory and the fact he made several important saves in the late going and in the shootout, the testy Vancouver fans whose faith in Luongo is less than rock solid will greet this performance with pursed lips and a knowing nod.
It’s not the first time Luongo hasn’t quite been up to snuff in his hometown barn - he had lost three straight starts in Montreal - but here’s a cheery thought for the rest of the league: he doesn’t need to be particularly good for Vancouver to win.
On paper, this wasn’t supposed to be close, but thanks to Price, who was sterling in denying early chances to Jannik Hansen and Salo, the Habs were able to gain a toe-hold.
The Canadiens had 68 goals in 28 games coming in to Thursday’s game, but only six had been scored by defencemen.
It figures, then, that they would get two in the first period from the blue line.
In fact, Frederic St-Denis’s first NHL goal and Raphael Diaz’s second came on nearly identical plays - wrist shots from the right side of the slot through traffic.
On opener, 4:38 into the first period, Luongo was incensed that the play hadn’t been whistled dead with Habs centre Tomas Plekanec pushed Bieksa into the goalie’s lap, knocking him off balance - he may have had a point.
But there could be no complaints about the second, where Diaz wristed a puck that found its way through a thicket of bodies and past a contorted Cole, who was posted at the top of the crease.
Cole eventually made it 3-0 with 2:20 gone in the second, then Vancouver opened the throttle.
First they struck back with a short-handed marker - Mason Raymond’s first goal since returning from a career-threatening back injury - and drew to 3-2 early in the third through Hodgson’s goal with the teams four-on-four.
A nervy finish was always in the cards from that point.