Luongo ready to make history

By

VANCOUVER — Roberto Luongo smiled and called it fun. He wasn’t kidding.

All around him in the frantic, fateful, final minutes of an Olympic hockey game that had no business being close were Slovakians. There was one in front and one behind and to his left, his teammate in Vancouver, Pavol Demitra, with a chance to tie the game.

“They threw everything at me,” Luongo said, almost with a sense of pride. “They had one last great push. That was fun, the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

It didn’t look that way.

Luongo made a late save on a Demitra backhand that would have sent Team Canada’s one-sided semifinal game against Slovakia into overtime. He made a difference when it mattered most. And in those final few minutes of Canadian confusion, Luongo demonstrated why he was chosen to be Team Canada’s starting goaltender after leaving some doubt just a few minutes earlier.

This remains a Canadian question, with one game left in the Olympic hockey tournament. Can Luongo match Ryan Miller save-for-save in Sunday’s gold-medal game? Is he a big-game, big-win goaltender? Is he — and how can we possibly know this yet — the guy?

He was the guy in the final seconds Friday when got his glove on the Demitra backhand that was headed to an open net. He was the guy for that final minute or two when the surprising Slovaks had turned a 3-0 game into something that was nerve-racking.

But he was also the guy who took his skate off the post, a sin of sorts for big-time goaltenders, and in doing so allowed Slovakia’s first goal in the third period, which meant a foregone-conclusion of a game was suddenly in some kind of doubt.

This may have been a dress rehearsal of sorts for the Canadian team but there are no dress rehearsals for Luongo. He wound up in this position when Martin Brodeur didn’t do his job. He wasn’t exactly the chosen one nor was he acclaimed for the role.

But he was in goal when the Canadian mauled the Germans and in goal when they beat up on the Russians and in neither of those games was he called upon to do anything important.

On Friday night, for more than 50 minutes he barely had to do anything. The Canadians, sucking some of the life out of the rink by playing a dull puck-possession, not necessarily physical, game and controlling the tempo.

They controlled the clock. They controlled the scoreboard. They did none of that with any of the zest, emotion or aplomb they had shown against the Russians in one of the truly great Canadian hockey performances of all time.

The win against Slovakia was historical only for being a win. Even the crowd, which carried Canada along in the previous win against Russia, worked hard to get themselves going but couldn’t find that peak, that fear, that belief that this was a real test for the Canadians.

The test, in the end, turned out to be for Luongo. Yet the results remain incomplete.

He let in one bad goal. He took a goal away late. He did the Grant Fuhr and won when he had to. That’s what the best goaltenders do.

But Brodeur lost his starting job when he gave up two bad ones in the first game against the Americans. Miikka Kiprusoff relinquished one horrendous goal Friday and took Finland down with him. The margin of victory between the unbeaten Americans and the emerging Canadians will be that thin.

A bad goal can be the difference between the colour of medals.

“I’m ready,” Luongo said, and again he smiled. “I can’t wait for Sunday. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.”

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca


MORE FROM STEVE SIMMONS

POLL