|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2011||[Print without images]|
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Don't fret, Vancouver Canucks fans. You only have 11 more years of Roberto "Please Pump My Tires" Luongo.
Despite enjoying a wide edge in the talent department and despite winning the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins, the skillful Canucks and their franchise goaltender somehow managed to parlay that into one of the great collapses in recent Stanley Cup finals history.
With an entire city gathered in downtown Vancouver in anticipation of the team's first Stanley Cup championship, fans who would later set their city ablaze in anguish were dumbfounded as the Canucks allowed the Bruins to run them out of their own rink with a 4-0 victory in Wednesday's Game 7.
As the Bruins mobbed Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas and the Canucks lined up to shake hands and absorb the images of the Bruins celebrating in their house, pouring champagne on their ice, holding the Stanley Cup aloft on their logo, it remained more than a little mystifying how it came to this.
|Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas are both Vezina finalists this year, but the Canucks goalie lost out in the Cup finals race.|
In a series, and finally a game, that looked to define Luongo, the Vezina Trophy nominee managed to turn in a performance that could best be described as ordinary. In the most important game of his career, where was the timely stop from a goalie that has 11 years left on a monster contract? Where was the mental toughness all elite goalies, and certainly his counterpart Thomas, show in the face of crushing pressure?
Luongo allowed one goal in the first period and then two more on just eight shots in the second and seemed surprised at the difficulty of the playoff journey.
"I think playoffs is probably the hardest thing, the last couple of months, that I've ever had to do in my professional career," Luongo said. "I think mentally it's just a grind the whole time. I said it, I don't remember which game it was, that it's much tougher mentally than physically more than anything else."
This loss isn't all on Luongo, of course. How could it be when the NHL's most prolific regular-season team managed just eight goals through seven games in the finals?
Daniel and Henrik Sedin did little to dispel the notion that, while they may be rare talents and regular NHL hardware recipients, they are not made for the heavy lifting of a Stanley Cup final. The twins combined for two goals and three assists in seven games, and Henrik's only goal came when Game 6 was out of reach.
Juxtapose that against what the Bruins brought to the table in Game 7 -- a gritty, gutsy showing that featured strong performances from all four forward lines, an airtight defense and another all-world performance from Thomas.
Yes, they were banged up and without the services of defensemen Dan Hamhuis and Aaron Rome and forward Mason Raymond. But this was a deep, talented team that had no pushback in Game 7.
Ryan Kesler had a strong game, but still finished with just one assist in the series. Kesler, clearly not at 100 percent, suggested the day before Game 7 that no one would care if he had just one assist if the Canucks won, that they would be "legends" if they took the Cup. Instead, he is just another top Canucks player who couldn't get the job done when it mattered.
Credit both Sedins for taking on the heavy burden of blame in the aftermath of the Game 7 loss.
"Me and Dan are the ones that are going to score, and we didn't do it. We didn't score enough, and that's the way it is," said Henrik, who a year ago won the scoring title and Hart Trophy as regular-season MVP.
"We had one thing on our mind tonight and that was to go in and have a great game," added Daniel, who was this season's scoring champ and is nominated for the Hart Trophy. "We want to be the guys to win games for this team and tonight, obviously, we did not do that. We needed to find a way to solve Thomas. I think that was the biggest problem for us in this series, and we didn't do it.
"There's no excuses. It's our job. Our only job is to score, and we came up short. It's really disappointing. Eight goals was enough to get to Game 7, but it wasn't enough to win it."
But let's be honest about when this whole thing went off the rails. It doesn't take much detective work to go back to Luongo's comments about Thomas after Game 5. At that point in the series, Luongo looked like he might actually be "the man." He had spoken strongly after two poor outings in Games 3 and 4 in Boston. He'd delivered the goods in Game 5, a 1-0 shutout.
Then he mouthed off about Thomas' style, choosing to take a shot at Thomas' penchant for straying outside the comforts of the crease. Then Luongo petulantly asked why Thomas hadn't said anything nice about him.
Luongo responded by getting shelled in Game 6 and yanked before the midway point of the first period.
Then, on a night when he could have reduced all that talk to white noise, on a night when the Canucks could have erased 40 years of falling short, Luongo was just average. Against a player like Thomas, average was not nearly enough.
Now what? Can Luongo become that man? Will we be lauding Luongo a year from now for having developed the mental toughness he clearly lacks now? He thinks so.
"I learned a lot about myself in these last couple of months, and as a team I think obviously we're devastated right now. But we realized lots of things and we're a good team and we'll be back," Luongo insisted.
The Canucks better hope he's right, or it's going to be an awfully long decade.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.