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The Tale of Two Goalies played out in Vancouver on Sunday night with ample portions of dread and joy. There was Good Roberto Luongo, happily patting heads with his Canucks teammates after a 27-save performance gave Vancouver a 3--2 win over the Sharks in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. But to get to that point, the Canucks first had to overcome Bad Roberto Luongo, who put them in a 1--0 hole late in the first period when he left his crease to make an ill-advised clearing pass along the boards. The puck had landed on the stick of San Jose captain Joe Thornton, who popped it into Vancouver's wide-open net.
For the first time in their 40-year history, the Canucks have the NHL's best team, but there is a vast range of opinion as to whether Luongo, so prone to the catastrophic pratfall, can lead them to their first title. Consider this recent customs-counter interrogation of a visitor by a chirpy female officer at Vancouver International Airport:
"So what do you think of Luongo, eh?"
"Well, he's playing well."
"Come on, he's a choker, right? What, you don't think so?"
In Western Canada, acknowledgment of the hometown goalie's shortcomings is apparently a prerequisite to enter the country.
Then again, walk past any downtown souvenir shop on Burrard Street and you are likely to see for sale a T-shirt depicting a scruffy, long-haired goaltender that reads: JESUS SAVES! BUT HE'S NO LUONGO!
No other player in the game can match the better-than-a-savior, worse-than-a-scoundrel duality of Luongo, the 32-year-old Vezina Trophy finalist from Montreal. He is the psychological gold mine (and land mine) on whom the fate of a franchise now rests. On Sunday the B.C. paper The Province ran a full-page story about a Chinese fortune-teller's thoughts on the Canucks. Pictured sitting over a Ouija board, a turtle shell and a feng shui book, oracle Sherman Tai said that Luongo "may sometimes make careless mistakes or be unable to manage pressure." You don't say.
For Luongo, all the late goals, soft goals and gaffes have fogged a superb career that lacks only a Stanley Cup. Agita and ulcers notwithstanding, he is having his best season. Though coach Alain Vigneault limited his workload to 60 games this season, Luongo still led the NHL in wins with 38, was second in goals-against (2.11) and fourth in save percentage (.928). From Jan. 20 through season's end, he did not allow more than three goals in any of his 26 starts.
Luongo already has 308 wins in his 11-season career, the first six of which he spent with the middling Panthers and Islanders. Only five NHL goalies have reached 300 victories at a younger age, and last year he won the most important match in Canada's history, a 3--2 overtime defeat of the U.S. in the Olympic gold medal game. His trajectory should carry him straight into the Hall of Fame.