Melanson also remade Luongo's footwork from post to post, helping him to both keep his shoulders square to more shots and to seal off low corners of the net more consistently. As for Luongo's sometimes erratic puckhandling, Melanson had his protégé work repeatedly on dump-in drills in which he looked up sooner in order to mark the gaps between his defense and the oncoming forwards, giving him more time to make an outlet pass or leave the puck for one of his defensemen. The result of all the adjustments was one of the best statistical seasons of his career.
But come the playoffs, the Blackhawks—with the benefit of some excellent postseason scouting—exploited the holes in Luongo's new style. After dropping the first three games of the first-round series, Chicago began running tip drills during their off-day practices, springing their quick forwards through the center of the ice to redirect shots into the net's top corners—the spots Luongo was now leaving exposed by setting himself deeper in the crease. The Blackhawks won Games 4 and 5, ringing up 10 goals against Luongo in just 40 shots.
That prompted Vigneault to make the remarkable move of benching his starting goalie for Game 6. But backup Cory Schneider went down with leg cramps in the third period, leaving the shaken Luongo to mop up and start Game 7. He turned to friends and family for support, including younger brothers Leo, a goalie coach in the QMJHL, and Fabio. Leo told Roberto to forget the big picture and think only about stopping the next shot. Fabio told him that things had gotten as bad as they could get, so they could only get better.
Luongo even consulted Montreal sports psychologist Gordon Bloom, who told him to think of happier moments, such as the sight of Sidney Crosby scoring Canada's gold-medal-winning goal. But most of all, Bloom advised Luongo, he should embrace the madness of the playoff crucible. "It was the greatest emotional roller coaster of my life," Luongo says. "Maybe I had to hit the bottom to get back to the top." It was a signature victory, and Luongo's sliding backdoor stop on Patrick Sharp early in overtime to save the Canucks' season was a touchstone moment.
In the next round, against the Predators, a club whose modestly skilled forwards were ill-suited to exploit Luongo's new weaknesses, Luongo was solid when the puck was directly in front of him. But he allowed three costly goals on shots that caromed into the net from odd angles. Nashville's David Legwand beat Luongo with bank shots from behind the net in consecutive games, and defenseman Ryan Suter scored from behind the goal line in Game 2 by knocking the puck off Luongo's outstretched left leg pad. "Roberto sometimes gives up those goals," says coach Alain Vigneault, "but this year he won most of those games with great confidence."
And that may be the biggest reason to fear Good Roberto Luongo this year. His Inspector Clouseau--ian alter ego has not yet broken him. On Sunday three of the Sharks' first four shots were from bad angles in the left corner. In response Luongo dropped into his butterfly stance early and put his stick and right leg pad down against the ice. The Canucks' defense then cleared the rebounds. It was textbook goaltending, and it was all the more impressive considering that with his first-period giveaway, Luongo had given himself another reason to fall apart.
"Maybe in past years," says Gillis, "the adversity would have been too much for us." The hope in Vancouver this spring is not that Luongo's flaws are gone for good but that he can overcome them quickly enough, and often enough, to finally hoist the Stanley Cup over his head.
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