A closer look at how the Blackhawks have picked apart the Canucks and their No.1 goaltenderThe timing couldn’t have been much worse in terms of optics for Roberto Luongo.
Pulled from a second straight playoff game after being beaten 10 times on just 40 shots over less than 35 minutes of playoff action against nemesis Chicago, Luongo was one of three goalies nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender when the announcements were made on Friday.
In a city calling for rookie backup Cory Schneider to start Game 6 in Chicago Sunday, even Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault seemed to take a sideways shot at the insignificance of the honour given Luongo’s recent performance in the playoffs.
“It means during the regular season we were good, but now it’s playoff hockey and we need to be good at this time,” said Vigneault, though only after re-iterating his immediate post-game comments that Luongo is still his starter.
It’s hard to argue the awkward optics of the announcement, but the reality is Luongo will finish third in Vezina voting, which is hard to disagree with given he finished in the top three of every major category except shutouts.
“I’ve been campaigning for for him all year,” Schneider said. “Everyone says it’s because of the team but when you lead the league in goals and goals against, you gotta be taking chances to score goals so it’s not like we’re sitting there getting 15 shots a night. He has kept us in a bunch of games and hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves.”
Still New York’s Henrik Lundqvist and Montreal’s Carey Price are both equally deserving – many would argue more – of inclusion in the Vezina discussion, and don’t be surprised if they are fourth and fifth when the final totals are released at the NHL awards in late June (General Managers vote for the Vezina Trophy). But the reality is Boston’s Tim Thomas is the slam dunk winner of his second Vezina after breaking Dominik Hasek’s save percentage record, and it’s no less ironic that just-as-certain runner up, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, has been fighting the puck himself in the playoffs, was yanked late in his previous game and had an even worse .860 post-season save percentage.
As for Luongo, he was the first to admit the regular season success would mean little if things didn’t turn around in the playoffs. He recognizes the need to make adjustments, particularly in how he’s dealing with traffic.
“They got guys going to the net but that’s my job to find those pucks even though they have one or two screens,” Luongo said before flying to Chicago. “All year I fought through those things and speaking with (goalie coach Rollie Melanson) yesterday he brought a couple things to my attention that I am going to try and implement on Sunday.”
It’s safe to say the rest of the Canucks will be doing the same, because as much as Luongo has to wear Chicago’s recent goal surge, he’s certainly not alone in causing it.
The Blackhawks, almost certainly with the guidance of goalie coach Stephane Waite, who is among the best at picking apart opponents, have altered their attack the last two games, going away from the east-west, crash-the-crease mentality that exploited Luongo’s more aggressive positioning during the last two playoffs. Instead they have focussed more on getting shots from the middle of the ice to take advantage of his inside-the-blue adjustments this season.
Forward Michael Frolik hinted at the adjustment between Games 1 and 2, and Chicago ran drills prior to Game 2 specifically designed to get players cutting into the middle, tucked behind a net drive.
Melanson told InGoal back in late November that taking away the middle of the ice (and being harder on sticks in front of the net) was key with how he wanted his goalies to play, and Vancouver’s improvements in both areas can be directly linked to the turnaround in their defensive numbers in the second half of the season.
But in the last two playoff games, the Canucks have been complicit in giving up the middle, allowing skilled players like Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith time and space to pick corners that will obviously look bigger anytime a goalie is playing deeper in his crease. The back-checking pressure has all but disintegrated as Vancouver gave up more odd-man rushes in two games than the last two months.
Chicago’s power play, which has scored six times the last three games, has not only improved its net presence since the first two games, but Duncan Keith has gotten all kinds of time and space up top to pick his spots behind that traffic. The Norris Trophy winning defenseman has four goals in those three games.
“Keith is putting shots high inside the post with traffic and those are pretty impossible to stop so we either have to deny him the puck or block more shots or do a better job in front so Lou can see them,” Schneider said.
“We haven’t exactly played real well in front of him the last two games.”
Luongo, however, wasn’t talking about the need for improved defending, which along with his handling of the media crush after the last two meltdown losses, may be the other big difference from the last two seasons.
“I’ve got to stop the puck and a shot from the blue line shouldn’t beat me there,” he said of Keith’s blasts.
Luongo has also quietly owned being too deep at times, even by his new standards, and committing to his knees and a butterfly slide on some of the odd-man rushes rather than beating those passes across on his skates.
Whether the change of attitude after and between games is enough remains to be seen. Some suggest it’s the attitude within the game and after each goal – like the defeated, look-to-the-heavens act that followed Hossa’s first goal from the high slot – that really needs to change. That the Blackhawks scored 17 seconds apart in Game 4 and again just 24 seconds after Hossa’s first in Game 5 only reinforces the belief they really are inside Luongo’s head.
If there is any justification in the public calls for Schneider to start, it is between the ears and not between the pipes. The so-far unflappable rookie insists he wouldn’t have fared much better given the scoring chances his team has surrendered, but how he – and the team – might react after goals go in remains a question many are asking.
Kudos due for overlooked Crawford at the other end
For all the attention given the Blackhawks renewed exploitation of Luongo, it’s been far too easy to overlook the steadily improving play of post-season rookie Corey Crawford at the other end of the ice.
A big-bodied, sometimes blocky goalie with deep roots in Francois Allaire’s summer goaltending schools in his native Montreal, Crawford wasn’t always making clean saves to start this series. But he was making plenty of timely ones to keep his team in the first few games, and now it’s clear as the saves get cleaner and the positioning more confident that his comfort level has risen steadily throughout his first five games as an NHL playoff starter.
“This is the best I’ve felt in the last couple of weeks,” Crawford, who has a good reactive game on top of his butterfly base, said after Game 5. “I’ve always been confident but I felt I needed to be a little bit better to give us a chance.”
Just as Luongo isn’t getting much help at the other end, Crawford is getting more as the series has gone on. The Blackhawks blocked 20 shots (to Vancouver’s nine) in Game 5, and despite missing top shutdown defender Brent Seabrook the last two games, are looking a lot more like the defending Stanley Cup champion team that totally shut down the front of their net area against the Canucks while eliminating them each of the last two seasons.
With Crawford now doing a better job controlling rebounds than Antti Niemi last season, that’s a good sign.
“We blocked I don’t know how many shots, but a lot of times when they had a good opportunity in the middle of the ice we came up with a huge block,” Crawford said. “That’s really key for the goaltender.”
Luongo can relate.