Pipe Dreams - Bobby Lou Versus The World

So you want to be an NHL goaltender, eh?

Who wouldn't want to shoulder the load of being considered the last line of defense? Why wouldn't you want to constantly answer for the bulk of your team's struggles? In victory you are given partial credit and in defeat the majority of the blame. Sounds like fun doesn't it?

With the Stanley Cup Finals set to begin in mere hours, I feel the need to draw attention to what appears to be a glaring no-win situation. Despite backstopping the Presidents Trophy winning Canucks to their first Stanley Cup birth in almost two decades, Roberto Luongo is still receiving a surplus of unwarranted criticism.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, Luongo has become a favourite whipping boy for many hockey fans across the board. Labelled as overrated and not a big game goalie, Luongo's reputation has been seemingly tarnished before it really had the ability to flourish. Getting to the aforementioned no-win situation, I'm not sure that if Luongo and the Canucks emerge as Stanley Cup winners this season that these Luongo critics will ultimately be silenced.

Before second guessing the critics reactions, I felt the need to see it from their point of view. As an avid Luongo supporter, I've had many tiresome arguments defending him from the threshold of averageness. So I felt the need to approach it from a different perspective to see what the naysayers see.

To be fair, Roberto Luongo has not been a part of a Stanley Cup winning team. I say Stanley Cup winning team because hockey, to the best of my knowledge, is still a team game and no single player has been able to hoist the Cup without the aid of his jerseyed brethren. For anyone who disagrees with this, please look up a little known player named Marcel Dionne and get back to me.

I actually feel at a loss right now because apart from this obvious lack of a Stanley Cup, which I concede for the time being, I have no platform to stand on if I were to take up the naysayer's argument that Luongo isn't a big game goalie and is thus overrated. So let's delve into Bobby Lou's career and maybe I can figure out why the negative stigma surrounding the Canucks 'tender.

Luongo's international credentials are impeccable to say the least. Beginning with his World Junior Silver Medal in Winnipeg in 1999 where he posted a 1.92 GAA and won best goalie of the tournament before falling in overtime to the Russians in the Gold Medal game.

Luongo followed that up by backstopping Canada to back-to-back Gold Medals at the World Championships in '03 and '04. The 2003 World Championship in Finland was especially noteworthy as Luongo came in as Sean Burke's backup and was thrown into action in the semi-final game when Burke was injured. Luongo finished that game and went on to make 49 saves in a 3 - 2 overtime win against Sweden in the Gold Medal Game.

Finally, how can we forget the 2010 Olympics in front of his home crowd in Vancouver? Luongo was stellar for Canada after Martin Brodeur faltered early in the tournament. This Olympic Gold Medal was Luongo's fourth international Gold Medal for Canada, three of them as a starter, to go along with two Silvers and a Bronze. Not a bad international resume for a guy who is only 32 years old.

But I'm not fooling myself into thinking that international play means that much in the grand scheme for hockey enthusiasts. The real money is made here in North America between May and June when the Stanley Cup is up for grabs. So I will skip any regular season stats that may be relevant because this conversation is about being a big game goalie.

After spending five seasons of futility with the Panthers, essentially being the only relevant hockey related entity there, Luongo moved on to Vancouver where he experienced playoff hockey for the first time in his career in 2007. The result? A dominating 1.77 GAA, .941 save % and a 72 save performance in a 4 overtime game against Dallas where the Canucks eventually emerged victorious. By the way, that performance was one save off Kelly Hrudey's record of 73 saves in a game. The Canucks, however, bowed out in the second round to the eventual Stanley Cup winning Anaheim Ducks.

After missing the playoffs in 2008, Luongo and the Canucks suffered back-to-back second round losses to the Chicago Blackhawks in '09 and '10. The bottom line was these Hawks teams were deeper and arguably more talented which was on display last season as they as well hoisted Lord Stanley's Mug. Luongo's play against the Hawks was not stellar admittedly, but as a team the Canucks were outmatched which I reiterate my previous argument about this sport being a team game.

So, in essence, Bobby Lou has been to the big dance three previous times in his career, never lost a first round and twice was defeated by the eventual Stanley Cup winners. He's been a Vezina Finalist and Lester B. Pearson Finalist twice as well as a Hart Trophy Finalist once prior to this year. Does this sound like a guy who is overrated?

This season Luongo has only posted a 2.11 GAA, the best of his career, and won three playoff rounds with a 2.29 GAA. He is once again a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and a definite candidate for the Conn Smythe should the Canucks win the Stanley Cup. What more does this man have to do to prove his worth to the world?

Unfortunately, some guys just seem to have that negative stigma follow them their entire career. For Luongo, it may have something to do with the small hockey market syndrome. Playing his early years wasting away in an unsuccessful Panther organization and then moving to a team on the West Coast hasn't benefitted his reputation. By no means am I criticizing the Canucks organization, but this league is built around the East coast and when your games start at 10 eastern you don't get the same exposure.

If Luongo wins the Cup this year it will be on the backs of the best team in the NHL. If the Canucks should fall to the Bruins, it will be because Luongo wasn't strong enough or worthy enough to endure the pressure. The no-win situation feels almost inevitable.

The goaltending position is possibly the most mentally gruelling position in hockey. There is a constant flow of second guessers and critics waiting for you to fail. A goalie has no second or third lines, no breaks during a game. There are no short shifts or long shifts, just one 60 minute shift that will continue if tied.

So, do you still want to be an NHL goaltender?

Paul Cardarelli
http://twitter.com/#!/pcard29