October bedevils Roberto Luongo.
In the first month of the long hockey season – especially during Luongo’s time in Vancouver –the goaltender’s play is much weaker than through the rest of the winter.
The reasons may not be clear, but the results are stark, indicated clearly by a detailed parsing of the numbers. During Luongo’s six Octobers in Vancouver, his record is 28-27-4, putting up wins in less than half his decisions. In the months of November through April, the difference is remarkable: 205-94-40.
It’s not all Luongo’s fault, as the Canucks have struggled somewhat to get going season after season, but the goaltender’s numbers are just not as sharp. His October save percentage, over 1,646 shots in six years – essentially a season unto its own – is 0.906, the result of a journeyman. The figure, for November through April, surges to a strong 0.921.
The difference, roughly, is a half goal per game, which might not sound like much but has an obvious impact on the win-loss record. In October, Luongo and the Canucks post outright wins in less than half of their games, just 47.5 per cent. In November through April, it is 60.5 per cent. If one includes the point gained in overtime losses in the shootout, October sees the Canucks record at least a point in 54.2 per cent of Luongo’s games, far lower than the 72.3 per cent in other months.
This season, the pressure is on to deliver early: The Canucks are in a more difficult division and face a grinding, early road trip; the team is leaning on Luongo more so than ever, with a unproven backup; and Luongo’s play in the fall will be a big factor in his effort to secure a spot, and possibly the starting gig, on the Canadian Olympic team.
Cracking the dark spell October has held over him on the West Coast will be key. And given the tumult that had Luongo set to be traded for months, only to be retained, will bring an even greater spotlight on how well he fares early on. He hardly needs his critics to prey. Luongo’s play in October rests on the goaltender’s mind.
“It always is,” said the goaltender in an interview about the spectre of the opening month.
Why, and how, October is a problem for him are not questions he has answers to. Some have observed that larger goaltenders – Luongo is 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds – are somewhat slower to find their form. Six-foot-five Pekka Rinne, for example, was 0-2-3 before he managed his first win last season.
Luongo looks back on his years and sees poor preseasons followed by poor Octobers and good preseasons followed by poor Octobers. On Thursday night in Vancouver, he posted a stellar, 41-shot shutout of the New York Rangers – and appeared to be in prime form. But afterward he dismissed any potential correlations to prime time starting next week. He focuses on practice, work, repetition – knowing his game will emerge.
The biggest challenge for all goalies is the live-fire nature of a game, so different than even spirited practices. Getting the eyes sharp, the reaction time down, all of it amid the crash of players in front of the net, is the trick, said retired goaltender and CBC broadcaster Kelly Hrudey.
Goalies also don’t have much game time before the season begins. The Canucks played six preseason games and Luongo was in net for two full outings and two periods of another, a typical figure for a starter. A quarter-century ago, when Hrudey was playing, preseasons were running much longer: 10, 11 games.
Luongo’s problems in October, based on a Globe analysis, appear to be a Vancouver thing, and a more-recent one at that. In five seasons as a starter in Florida, Luongo backstopped the Panthers to wins about at the same rate in October as other months of the year. He booked shutouts on the same pace, too. After he was traded, Luongo’s first October in Vancouver was strong, posting a 7-4-1 record. He began to stumble in October in 2007-08, and the trend since then has held.
One glaring sign of his troubles: He was pulled five times in 36 starts over the past four Octobers.
Luongo cedes a far-greater percentage of power-play goals in October than the rest of the regular season – one-third compared with one-fifth – which indicates a general Canucks problem on the penalty kill in the early season.