Commentary

'He still feels he has a lot to prove'

Updated: May 2, 2010, 12:38 AM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- So you're Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, and the last time you played a postseason game at the United Center, it left you in tears. Literally.

A seven-goal barrage ended your season and no one felt the brunt of it more than you.

"I'll never forget on the plane last year, he came back where I sit at the back of the plane and he just said sorry to me. I just felt awful for him," the injured Ryan Johnson, one of Luongo's closest friends on the team, said following Saturday's night 5-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.

[+] EnlargeRoberto Luongo
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Roberto Luongo made 36 saves to lead the Canucks to a 5-1 win over the Hawks in Game 1.

Johnson felt awful because he didn't think it was fair for Luongo to shoulder all of the blame. But that's how the media saw it, and that's how Luongo felt himself.

"I know how much he cares, and through that, I knew he was going to take that, digest it and come back with a vengeance the following year," said Johnson.

Nearly 12 months later, the star goalie's response was emphatic Saturday night. The only goal that beat him came on a 5-on-3 in the third period with the game already in hand.

A confident Luongo set the tone early with a 17-save first period that included several brilliant stops, relaxing his teammates and giving them confidence to carry out a surprisingly one-sided victory in the opening game of a highly anticipated second-round series.

Make no mistake, people will remember Game 1 as a laugher, but it could have easily been a Hawks lead early on if not for Luongo.

"We know what we have in Roberto," said Canucks star forward Daniel Sedin. "He's going to bring it every night and tonight was his game. Especially in the first period on their power play, he came up big for us."

The 36-save effort by the Olympic gold medalist quieted one of the NHL's most raucous arenas. The decibel level was through the roof for the pregame national anthem and the anticipation of a special night was in the air. But by the time Henrik Sedin made it 3-0 just 32 seconds into the second period, it was dead quiet inside the United Center.

"In your face," might have been what Luongo was thinking, but the Canucks captain dug deep in his cliché cupboard after the game, not wanting to give the opponents anything to feed off of. Even the mere notion that Saturday night's game meant anything to him was dismissed.

"Nothing, it doesn't mean nothing to me," said Luongo. "It's only one game. We're here to win four games, we're not here to win one. There's no satisfaction for me personally or for this team."

We don't believe him for a second, but what else is he going to say? So back to Johnson, one of Luongo's confidantes, who's out with a foot injury. Did Saturday night mean anything to Luongo?

"It's not just this game and even not just to break it down to this series, but for the whole playoffs in general," said Johnson. "I know the pride Louie has in his game and what it means to him to establish himself and validate himself as a great goaltender because of what he does in the playoffs and not in the regular season. I think tonight is a great step for him, but I think he still feels he has a lot to prove here."

While Game 1 was about one goalie's redemption, it was also about a rookie netminder's night to forget. Fat rebounds hung Antti Niemi out to dry on this night.

"A juicy rebound, and I was able to put it where I wanted," Canucks winger Mason Raymond said of his first-period goal that made it 2-0.

Yet again, the goalie question remains the hot topic on a Blackhawks team that otherwise is arguably the deepest in the NHL everywhere else. Hawks fans flooded message boards in deep anxiety over Niemi. Inside the Hawks dressing room? No concern.

"No, not at all," said Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell. "He played great in the first period there, too. He didn't give up anything that we didn't give them. I wouldn't be worried about Antti. I'm not."

Niemi responded to so-so efforts in the first round with a pair of shutouts, so don't rule that out for Game 2. On the other hand, this isn't the offensively challenged Nashville Predators here. These are the high-flying Vancouver Canucks, who lit up Kings goalie Jonathan Quick like a Christmas tree in the first round.

"They're really good, it seems like they've gotten a lot better from last year," Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. "The biggest thing against this team, they're so good offensively, you have to hang on to the puck and play a puck-possession game and keep it away from their big guns and try and keep it in their end as much as possible. I know it's easier said than done."

It's game on in what may prove to be the most compelling series of the second round. And Game 1 already established that last season's series between these teams is long forgotten. If the Blackhawks didn't know that before Saturday night, they sure do now.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.