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Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo reaches for the puck during the first period in Game 4 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago April 19, 2011. REUTERS/John Gress (John Gress/Reuters)
Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo reaches for the puck during the first period in Game 4 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago April 19, 2011. REUTERS/John Gress (John Gress/Reuters)

Roy MacGregor

Masked men make the difference Add to ...

On paper, it looks like a bad joke: Sixteen minutes of previous playoff experience up against almost 40 hours of Stanley Cup play.

Corey Crawford at one end; Roberto Luongo at the other.

One, at 27, just missed being named a finalist for NHL rookie of the year; the other, at 32, is a veteran out to show, finally, he has the Royal Jelly worthy of a Stanley Cup to go with last year's Olympic gold medal.

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And yet there are also similarities.

Both were born in Montreal - though Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Crawford calls Chateauguay, Que., across the river on the South Shore, home - and both were greatly influenced by Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy. Vancouver Canucks netminder Luongo is trilingual - English, French and Italian - and Crawford bilingual, though he points out that, unlike the eccentric Roy, he doesn't speak to his goalposts in either official language.

And both have much to prove. Crawford, that he has arrived as a No. 1 goaltender, even if rather late, and Luongo, that he can take his team past its playoff nemesis, the Blackhawks and on to Canada's first Stanley Cup since, coincidentally, Roy pulled it off with the Montreal Canadiens 18 long years ago.

Luongo once spoke on game days, but no longer. Crawford would happily still be talking as he stepped out onto the ice for the pregame warm-up.

"I've been pretty good," he said as his team prepared to meet the Canucks in a do-or-die Game 4 on Tuesday, "but I need to be better for us to win."

Crawford has been fine, but Luongo has, at times, been spectacular. His saves Sunday in Game 3 on Patrick Kane, twice, and Jonathan Toews left the young heroes of Chicago's last year Stanley Cup win shaking their heads.

Crawford looked calm heading into such a crucial game, but he admitted to feeling "anxious" as the hours ticked down. "I don't think I've played my best yet," he kept saying. "I feel I can play better."

Certainly, Crawford did play at a high level this season, as the defending champions stumbled badly and might well have missed the playoffs entirely but for him taking over the No. 1 role from Marty Turco and helping the team grab onto the final berth in the West.

Before this best-of-seven series began, he had only appeared in part of a single period of an NHL playoff game, though his play through Chicago's three losses to Vancouver had been strong.

There were many who believed Crawford's strong finish in the regular season would get him a Calder Memorial Trophy nomination as top rookie, but those honours went Monday to three high-profile goal scorers: Logan Couture (San Jose Sharks), Jeff Skinner (Carolina Hurricanes) and Michael Grabner (New York Islanders).

Crawford showed not the slightest concern about the picks, choosing to concentrate on the task at hand - avoiding elimination Tuesday - and fully aware his play would be as critical to any possible Chicago success as that of Toews and Kane.

"It's not so much putting the team on my back," he said with a laugh. "That's pretty tough to do in this league. But there will be situations where I've got to make the extra save and keep us with the lead."

Presuming, of course, they were able to get a lead - something they had, and lost, on Sunday.

Hanging onto leads is something Luongo has had trouble with in past playoff performances - 34 games coming into this spring, perfectly split at 17 wins, 17 losses. Emotional and expressive, he would often get flustered by traffic and taunts. But no longer. That victory in the 2010 Vancouver Games brought him more than a mere gold medal.

Luongo seems more relaxed, less driven, though his play has been superb in the year that followed the Olympics, as he posted 38 victories during the regular season and, entering Tuesday, remained unbeaten in the postseason.

It was Luongo's refusal to allow a goal in Chicago's long 5-on-3 advantage early Sunday that turned matters in favour of Vancouver. Yet, he casually dismissed what he'd accomplished when talking about one spectacular save off Kane: "I just put my glove down and got a piece of it."

"He seems more calm," teammate Mikael Samuelsson said. "He's more comfortable off the ice. He seems a little easier on himself."

"He saved us in the first period," Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said. "That's what we've fed on all season."

"I'm just trying to do my job," Luongo said. "It's my job to make the save at key times, and usually you get an adrenaline boost off that. We were able to turn the tables and get two goals in the second."

"He's always stayed on an even keel," Sedin said. "He's a better goalie, but our team is better in front of him. We didn't help him out a lot of nights last year or the year before. We gave up a lot of chances.

"We're a different team this year."

 

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