Roberto Luongo stands a metre in front of his goaltender's crease, in the middle of a spotlight. It is an age-old routine. National anthems play. Luongo, eyes and head tilted up, steps from skate to skate, the left tapping the right pad, the right tapping the left. His right hand holds his stick, tapping his left pad. As singer Mark Donnelly concludes his overwrought work, Luongo concludes the preface to his work, turning, skating back to his net, putting on his mask. He sweeps snow from his crease. The ritual is over. The game begins.
On Thursday night in Vancouver, the 34-year-old played his 405th game as a Vancouver Canuck and, likely, his last at home at Rogers Arena. The building on False Creek is where he's experienced the most intense sporting moments of his life, a list led by backstopping a gold medal for Canada in the 2010 Olympics, posting two shutouts in the Stanley Cup final and, in the same series, getting perforated on the road before coming home to give up four goals in Game 7 as his team fell 4-0 to the Boston Bruins.
On Thursday night in Vancouver, facing the visiting Anaheim Ducks, there were the old cheers of "Luuuu" from a vaguely engaged crowd on an evening when a hockey game of no meaning was played with intermittent vigour. Each side had already been assured of its position when the postseason begins next week, the Ducks in second, the Canucks in third, waiting for the rodeo to fight through the Western Conference. The Ducks scratched many of their best players: the ageless Teemu Selanne was forced to a day of rest, his first healthy scratch in a decade; Saku Koivu also rested; Bobby Ryan was sick; Ryan Getzlaf knew he wasn't playing so enjoyed an evening out at the Roxy the night before.
The Canucks, for a long time, did not play like it mattered, registering a total of eight shots by the halfway mark of the evening and then managing just a single shot in the second half of the second. Luongo did not deliver any sort of masterful performance, getting burned by a tipped-in goal on a power play about a third of the way into the second period before, a couple of minutes later, giving up what people in this town have long called a McSoftie. Brad Staubitz came down the boards and flung a harmless shot at a sharp angle at Luongo and it slithered through the goaltender and in. It was Staubitz's first goal of the year and the 10th of six NHL seasons. The ache on Luongo's face under his mask was palpable.
After the game, Luongo still rued his miscue. "It's my job to make those saves," he said. "Make one mistake" -- his paused -- "and the game's kind of ruined."
So what was probably the penultimate verse of the Ballad of Bobby Lu was written. The Canucks, late in the game, came alive, peppering Jonas Hiller with pucks in the third, and late in the final period found themselves on an extended power play. A cracker from Jason Garrison, on a five-on-three, broke the shutout, but the Canucks could not complete the comeback, losing 3-1, an empty-netter ending it.
It was an intriguing burst to finish. The listless performance earlier, some argued, boded badly for the postseason against the likes of San Jose or Los Angeles. Others would say no. But in the third period, like on Monday, when the Canucks trounced the Blackhawks, it was #fliptheswitch, as read the tweet of Luongo's Twitter alterego @strombone1 following the Vancouver victory over the somewhat listless Chicago. It's almost switch-flipping time. Thursday, it didn't really matter.
Still, it mattered to the Canucks's veterans, who have played together for years and were palpably upset after the game with the team's performance. After the second, coach Alain Vigneault did not join his players in the dressing room and instead it was the likes of captain Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler who stood and said the performance to that point was embarrassing.
"Something needed to be said," said Kesler after the game. Kesler was not among the Canucks's called upon to face reporters but specifically came into the room after he showered to speak.
"The first two periods were unacceptable. … We weren't working. I guess that we thought we could win the game without working."
Sedin said his team was not "emotional invested" in the first two periods and defenceman Dan Hamhuis acknowledged such games, without meaning, and with the Ducks resting players, are sometimes tough to get up for. "We didn't have the mindset we needed."
Luongo will get one more night in net for Vancouver, on Saturday in Edmonton, the last game of the regular season. Next week, it will be back to Cory Schneider, the younger goaltender who usurped Luongo a year ago in the playoffs and this year, midseason, finally asserted himself as the starter. Schneider is "hurt," but appeared on the ice on Thursday in suit before the game to accept a team award as the Canucks' most valuable player for 2013, an award won by Luongo his first two seasons in Vancouver. There remains a chance Luongo is called on again, in the playoffs, say if Schneider actually gets hurt, but the Ballad of Bobby Lu is likely near its end, an epic ending in a whimper, a coda that does not befit the whole. It rarely does.