As he often does, Roberto Luongo became the story of the series in round one versus the Chicago Blackhawks. Heading into a second round matchup against the Nashville Predators and fellow Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne, Luongo stands to once again dominate the series spotlight.
Let’s not forget too quickly that in his last two playoff series’ Luongo struggled mightily at times opposite two mere rookie goaltenders in Antti Niemi and Cory Crawford. Opposite Rinne and the Predators’ notorious defensive system Luongo finds himself in the toughest playoff goaltending duel of his career.
Yet both Rinne and Luongo struggled in their first round playoff matchups, surviving to prove themselves in the second round. After starting on the bench behind Cory Schneider in Game Six only to backstop the team to victory in Game Seven, can Luongo rebound opposite another world class goaltender?
Looking back at Luongo’s game logs from the first round, one gets the sense that two different goaltenders not named Schneider were playing in the Canucks crease through the series.
In four Canucks victories during the first round, Luongo allowed 6 goals on 122 shots, good for a .950 save percentage. However in the three Canucks losses, Luongo imploded to allow 11 on 53 shots totalling a.792 save percentage.
Having exorcised the demons that were the Chicago Blackhawks with a statement performance in Game Seven Luongo has the momentum on his side facing a new opponent in the Predators. After winning the biggest game of his life, one he said was bigger than the Olympic Gold Medal game, Luongo is ready to pick up where he left off in the second round.
At the other end of the rink Pekka Rinne will look to knock Luongo out of the playoffs before he attempts to knock him off out of the Vezina race. After battling with the Anaheim Ducks in an uncharacteristically high scoring series for Rinne, he is also looking to turn his game around in the second round.
Like Luongo the Predator’s goaltender started and ended his first round series with solid numbers, but strayed from his game in the thick of things. Games three and four were especially rough on Rinne in the opening round, he allowed 3 goals on 16 shots in game three only to return to the crease in game four to allow 6 goals on 29 shots, being pulled in the process. While Rinne may not be facing the same questions that Luongo has regarding getting the hook and playing under the pressure, those same doubts haunt both goaltenders heading into the series.
If anything, Luongo has the psychological advantage in the crease heading into round two. It may not be possible to play better than Cory Crawford did opposite Luongo in round one and after a series of questions and doubts Luongo is an expert at dealing with the pressure from the media and fans.
Bobby Lu has earned at least one letdown performance after what seemed like a Stanley Cup worthy series versus the Blackhawks in which his mental toughness was seriously questioned.
“It’s not easy to hear some things sometimes,” Luongo admitted to Jason Botchford of The Province. “But you learn to deal with these things. You have to realize people will have short memories.”
He may play in Nashville, but this is Pekka Rinne’s first playoff rodeo. If Rinne fails to compare to Luongo early in the series, he will face every recycled question Luongo already answered in round one. Just as Luongo knows, Rinne will have to prove himself to the pundits before he finds himself the story at the lonely end of the rink in the second round.
How Rinne fairs in round two depends greatly on the Canucks shooters. Following a difficult series against the Blackhawks for Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler, the Canucks top two centers are poised to make their mark offensively in the second round.
Captain Henrik Sedin failed to find the back of the net in round one, but with five assists managed to do his part in the opposition’s end setting up twin brother and Hart Trophy nominee Daniel Sedin. Consumed by the role of shadowing Jonathan Toews, Kesler also failed to score in the series tallying only four assists while playing opposite the fellow Selke nominee.
Without a standout scorer on the Predators to specifically shut down during the second round Kesler and the Canucks should be able to use their own offensive game as a first priority weapon, rather than embracing the shutdown role. The Predators will look to take advantage of any overzealous attacking by the Canucks in an attempt to shut down Vancouver and win scoring by committee.
“They play really well defensively like Chicago, they may not have the firepower but they have a really well balanced offence.” Burrows told the media on game day.
Former Predator Dan Hamhuis understands how the Predators defensive style works after six seasons in Nashville and has been educating his teammates on what is to come in round two.
“Just asking me about certain tendencies from different players and how the team plays, obviously I’m not going to get into too many specifics, just getting as prepared as much as we can for the team.”
While the series will ultimately become a battle of defensive-minded wills, I expect both Henrik and Kesler to break out early in round two. Free of the frustrating Blackhawks and the responsibility of shutting down their dangerous speed and skill it is time for the Canucks forwards to assume the role of the league’s top offensive team.
In the crease Roberto Luongo now has a fresh opportunity to control his playoff destiny opposite Pekka Rinne and the relatively toothless Predators scorers. Having exorcised the demons of playoff failures past, Luongo has proven himself in trial-by-Blackhawk and will continue his stellar play in the second round, shaking the alternate personality that took over during three first round losses.
About the Author: Kevin Vanstone is a long time sports fan and Canucks die hard from White Rock, British Columbia. He is currently attending the University of Victoria pursuing a Writing degree, and in his spare time writes about all things Canucks hockey as well as news and notes from around the NHL.