Just before the start of the third period of Friday's pivotal Stanley Cup playoff game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins, someone in the sold-out madhouse known as the Rogers Arena held up a sign that read: "Lou, we believe in you."
OK, so there was one.
But by game's end, after the Canucks gutted out a 1-0 victory to take a 3-2 series lead in the Stanley Cup final, there were another 18,000 or so true believers who'd rejoined the Roberto Luongo fan club - and probably lots more on the streets of Vancouver, which turned into one big giant block party for last night's riveting contest.
That was the same Roberto Luongo who had given up 12 goals in his previous two games in consecutive one-sided losses to the Bruins in Boston. The same Roberto Luongo who was topic No. 1 on sports radio for two days running. The Burnaby boys, the Gastown girls - even the Yaletown yobs - wanted to discuss: Should Luongo even get the start in Game 5, with so much on the line? Or should that job fall to back-up Cory Schneider, who came on in relief Wednesday night and has been a sturdy force for them all season?
But coach Alain Vigneault isn't much of a radio listener, and generally goes his own way when it comes time to fill out the line-up card. Roberto, insisted Vigneault, was his guy and Roberto, last night, rewarded Vigneault's faith in him with a solid and flawless performance.
"You could sense before the game he was ready," said Canucks' defenceman Kevin Bieksa. "Guys prepare different ways, but for some reason, there was just something about him before the game. He looked very, very confident. He was ready for the challenge tonight - and he came up big for us."
Luongo gave the Canucks every chance to win in the first two periods, when the Bruins held a territorial edge in play and goaltender Tim Thomas was extending his series shutout streak past the 100-minute mark. You'll probably see some of those saves on the highlight reels. The one against Patrice Bergeron, the rebound on from point-blank range, on a Bruins' power play. Tipped shots from the point - five off Dennis Seidenberg's stick, four off Johnny Boychuk's - just in the first two periods alone. The Bruins' point men were open all night, but no matter where the puck went, or how it changed direction, Luongo was seeing it well.
It was like that all night. Luongo tends to be the lightning rod whenever things go wrong in Vancouver - and he will probably never fully dispense with that burden until such time as the Canucks actually win the Stanley Cup, which they can do if they win once more in the next two games. In the 21 previous Stanley Cup final series tied 2-2, the club winning Game 5 has won the Stanley Cup 15 times (71%). Home clubs are now 5-0 in the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season.
Afterward, Luongo's teammates were lauding him, as he quietly changed in his locker stall, preparing to go to the podium again, to deconstruct the game. Vancouver has only six goals in five games in this series, on pace to win the Stanley Cup with one of the lowest offensive productions in finals history. If they can't ramp up the offence, they're going to need to keep playing strong defence - and when it breaks down, for Luongo to bail them out.
"He is a world-class goalie and we have so much confidence in him in this locker room - and it's been like this for the last couple of years," said winger Alex Burrows.
"In this playoff, it's a good thing we have him, because he's been really good - and obviously, we'll need him in Game 6 to play the same way."
The challenge in Game 6 for the Canucks will be to settle it down defensively, the way they did last night. Both games in Boston were loosey-goosy affairs. This was more in keeping with traditional playoff hockey - low-scoring, hard-hitting, tightly contested, a game that hung in the balance for the 44-plus minutes it took Maxim Lapierre to score his second goal on the playoffs.
Back in the first two games, both won by Vancouver, the Bruins were limited to a pair of goals four minutes apart in the second period of the second game. Otherwise, Luongo was stellar in the nets for the Canucks, a development that was soon forgotten in the aftermath of back-to-back debacles in Beantown.
But Luongo is, if nothing else, a stand-up guy, a point Bieksa made:
"He's a battler," said Bieksa. "He's a competitor. He's not a perfect goalie and pucks go in on him, but he's going to go out and battle and he cares as much as any guy in this room."
Luongo had a few of those imperfect moments in the opening round against the Chicago Blackhawks, where Vigneault gave him the hook as the Canucks frittered away a 3-0 series lead. But Roberto is his guy now and Roberto put them in the position where they now even have a fallback position, if Boston happens to win Game 6 Monday night.
Home-court advantage was how Luongo described it the other day, when he went on about the need to forget what's happened in the past and concentrate on the task at hand.
"If you do that," said Luongo, "you'll be fine."
Luongo was more than fine last night and now the Canucks are as close as they've ever been to winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history - largely thanks to a goalie who re-discovered who won all the true believers who'd drifted away in the past 48 hours.
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