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Nashville Predators center Colin Wilson (33) misses the net on a shot against Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo (1) in the second period of Game 4 of a second-round NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff series, Thursday, May 5, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
Nashville Predators center Colin Wilson (33) misses the net on a shot against Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo (1) in the second period of Game 4 of a second-round NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff series, Thursday, May 5, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Roy MacGregor

Spurts of vulnerability continue to plague Luongo Add to ...

Given that there is a country song for every occasion, perhaps the Vancouver Canucks should consider a little Garth Brooks before each game - and take to heart that chorus that tells them to "Stand straight, walk proud, have a little faith. …"

The Canucks spent so much of this week denying that there is any issue over confidence when it came to holding leads that, unfortunately, the talk only served to confirm that there must be.

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They get a lead; they can't hold it. They might win the game, but every time they play they lose a little more faith in their position as not only the best team in the National Hockey League, but the most effective third-period team the regular season produced.

They had a .927 winning percentage in games in which they led in the third period. They scored 100 third-period goals - tops in the NHL.

But that was then and this is now. And this is the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Twice this week against the Nashville Predators the Canucks let third-period leads slip away - both tying goals absolute groaners - and had to settle matters in overtime, losing once and winning once.

It happened again Thursday night when, up 2-1 heading into the third, yet another groaner - even if somewhat less egregious than the previous two - found its way between Roberto Luongo's pads to tie a game in the final frame.

This time, however, the day was saved in regulation when Vancouver's Ryan Kesler, the team's best player by far, scored on a spectacular rush to give the Canucks the lead again - a 4-2 final after an empty-net goal by Henrik Sedin - and a three-games-to-one lead in the series that returns now to Vancouver for Saturday's Game 5.

"A little less stressful, yes," a relieved Luongo laughed when it was over.

The victory was gratifying, as Vancouver has been by far the better team, but the late goal simply raised, once again, that old bugaboo concerning Luongo - can he win the games that truly matter?

It is the albatross around his neck, the gorilla on his back, the animal inside his head. It is a cruel knock that he has never been allowed to shed - not even with a gold-medal victory in last year's Olympics, when Sidney Crosby's goal allowed the thousands of Luongo doubters to take their first breath since the puck dropped in overtime.

Such is the reality of ridiculous expectations. Such is the hidden price of a 12-year contract that makes you, at $10- million (U.S.) a year, the game's highest-paid player. Such is what happens when you are 32, considered one of the game's premier goaltenders - a finalist for the Vézina Trophy during the regular season - and you have been unable to deliver a championship.

Perhaps it is because Luongo is so good, as well as so big, that his errors also seem larger than life. When a weak goal goes in, it looks … awful.

Bad goals get scored in every playoffs - just look at the fiasco in Philadelphia, or Jimmy Howard's woes in Detroit - but they only get magnified when the errors land in the laps of those who are cut no slack.

In the 2003 Stanley Cup final, future Hall-of-Famer Martin Brodeur moved to block a flip in from Sandis Ozolinsh of the Anaheim Ducks, lost his stick, lost his balance and somehow knocked the puck into his own net. The Ducks went on to win the game in overtime, but Brodeur's New Jersey Devils still won the Cup.

In 2001, Hall-of-Famer Patrick Roy wandered back of his net, lost the puck and lost the game - yet the Colorado Avalanche came back to win the Cup and Roy was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, despite the flagrant faux pas.

Hockey is filled with such stories - Sweden's Tommy Salo blowing a dump-in from centre ice by Belarus in the 2002 Olympics, Canada's Marc-André Fleury bouncing a clearing shot into his own net to lose the 2004 world junior gold medal - and they tend to stick for as long as the goaltender in question cannot erase them with a significant victory, as Fleury did when he won a Stanley Cup.

Luongo's teammates are acutely aware that he is both extremely talented and at times inexplicably vulnerable. When Kesler was on the United States team that met Canada in the Olympic final, he spoke openly of knowing that Luongo "has a couple of areas that I think we can exploit - and I'm sure not going to keep any secrets."

Luongo struggled in the Olympics against Slovakia - allowing a harmless backhander from an impossible angle to begin a comeback that almost succeeded - but did win the game that counted. It has not, however, counted for enough, as the questions remain and his teammates are forced, day after day, to say any problem lies with the team, not the goaltender.

"We haven't sat back," Vancouver head coach Alain Vigneault claimed after the Thursday morning skate.

Of the late goals that slipped into the Vancouver net and sent games into overtime, Vigneault argued that "both were tipped in our net.

"Those are hockey plays, lucky breaks."

Or unlucky, if you happen to be the one wearing the largest pads on the team.

It just seems, Daniel Sedin said before Thursday's Game 4 against the Predators, "you're up one goal, there's one shot, one rebound, and they tie the game."

It doesn't matter how they go in - off skates, off bodies, off rebounds - the goalie wears it.

And will wear it until he proves, once and for all, that he can win the Big One.

 

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