Taylor Hall cracked through on a breakaway and the Edmonton Oilers forward did not get overly fancy as he fired a wrist shot to a spot just inside the far post, only to watch it snagged with a swift glove save. It was, early in the first period, vintage Roberto Luongo.
There was a lot more vintage Luongo on Wednesday night, the kind of astoundingly hapless evening that led the Vancouver Canucks to spend more than a year trying to get rid of him. It may have been only the second preseason game of the year but Luongo’s unlikely return to the ice in Vancouver as a member of the Canucks was awful.
In two periods of play Luongo gave up four goals on 18 shots – two of them beyond dreadful– as Vancouver lost again at home, 4-1 to Edmonton.
The team was atrocious, too, with the likes of Zack Kassian loafing around the ice, the defence often in disarray, and Luongo bringing his Z game. He is a famously slow starter but Wednesday night did not even qualify for admission to a remedial class. One wiseacre on Twitter opined that the Canucks have been relegated to the American Hockey League.
Luongo, after the game, refused to blame his and his team's performance on the fact it is just September. He took blame for "a couple terrible goals," vowed to work out what's wrong, and also cited general confusion among the Canucks.
"I’ve just got to keep working like an animal out there, keep improving every day and making sure that you just build up to be ready for the opening night," said Luongo, and echoed this for the team as a whole: "I kind of felt the first 10, 15 minutes, guys weren’t too sure what to do out there. And as the game went along I thought we got better as a team. You know, I think everybody’s just trying to work out the kinks right now.”
It has to, however, despite being the preseason and all, rattle everyone involved, starting with coach John Tortorella who again watched from the press box instead of behind the bench. The first-year Vancouver coach has repeatedly declared that the Canucks of 2013-14 will go nowhere without strong play from Luongo.
“He’s going to be the backbone of our team,” Tortorella said of Luongo in early July after the shock trade of Cory Schneider. “And he’s got to try to put our team on his back and carry them.”
Make no mistake, winter is coming. And, yes, sure, we can underline that it may only be the preseason – it was indeed a fine late-summer day in Vancouver – but if the Canucks’ play on Wednesday evening is any indication of things to come, it might well be a long, cold and dark winter in Vancouver.
Let us review the worst of Wednesday, a duo of duds, within the same minute.
Moments after the sterling save on Hall, the young Oilers pressed again and Martin Marincin – a 21-year-old who scored seven goals in the AHL last year – lofted a long, soft shot after he entered the Vancouver zone, from near the boards, and it floated in. Maybe you can say Hall put up a good screen on Luongo but that would be beyond generous.
If the Marincin goal was a McSofty, we’re not exactly sure what to call the goal that came 31 seconds later. David Perron, taking a pass on the boards, bobbling it, finally got a hold of the puck and, from below the faceoff circle, flicked it at the net. It somehow beat Luongo on the blocker side, catching the inside of the far post.
Luongo’s four goals on 18 shots can’t help but spark a bit of a memory from the worst-of-Tortorella lowlight reel, his real ugly side, emasculating his own in public. During 2006 playoff game Tampa Bay goaltender John Grahame allowed four goals on 16 shots, bad, obviously, but not as awful as Tortorella postgame. “You need a damn occasional save,” said Tortorella, before conducting some quick math: “four goals in 16 shots,” pausing, and then concluding: “I’m a little tired of the 25-per-cent rule.”
One has to suppose Tortorella, in his effort to be a wiser/calmer version of his old madcap self, will resist lambasting his starting goaltender, at least for now.
Luongo, for all his greatness, has always suffered from a Jekyll-Hyde nature. His play is often brilliant. He has, so often, carried the Canucks. But he can also be horrible. The culmination of this puzzle was June, 2011, in the Stanley Cup Final when Luongo played some of his worst hockey and some of his best, the latter being two shutouts, which has been accomplished in one Cup final by only six goaltenders since the Second World War. Too bad for Vancouver one of those other fellows was Tim Thomas and his second shutout came in Game 7.
Fans, obviously, hate erratic goaltending, no matter how amazing the best nights are. But coaches and general managers – whose jobs rest on the fragile pillar of their players’ play – hate it even more. That is why the Canucks were so quick to anoint the steady-and-sure Schneider and eject Luongo, the man who just two years earlier was himself anointed with a 12-year, $64-million contract.
Now, there is no safety net. The Luongo-Schneider, Schneider-Luongo duos of the past two seasons ranked among the very best in the National Hockey League. This year, the Canucks backup will be – barring the addition of some journeyman veteran netminder no one else really wants – a rookie with zero games of NHL experience.
Perhaps Luongo’s traditionally poor October is excised in September and Wednesday night is an aberration, an awful dream. One can hope. That’s what the preseason is for: hope.