Roberto Luongo blocks critics in Game 5
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Roberto Luongo took a stroll down Seawall in Stanley Park earlier Friday to clear his head.
Then, he put up his own wall.
The Vancouver Canucks' much-maligned goaltender delivered one of the most important performances of his career Friday night, a 31-save shutout of the Boston Bruins that put his team just one victory away from the franchise's first Stanley Cup championship.
"There wasn't a single person in our dressing room that had any doubt about Roberto having a great game tonight," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said in French. "We knew he was going to give us his best. That's all we ask from him and that's what he delivered."
The rock-solid outing came on the heels of a 12-goal barrage against him in Games 3 and 4 in Boston, which once again fueled criticism that his game was coming apart when the stakes were at their highest.
Well, he shot back and then some Friday night in a critical 1-0 victory before a deafening Rogers Arena crowd.
"I only have to prove things to myself, my teammates, and my family and friends," Luongo said. "That's who I play for. I play the game because I love it and I want to win the Stanley Cup. So that's the only motivation I need right now. I try to block everything else out. Sometimes it's hard to do in a city like this. You can't let those things affect you, because then they will affect your game."
On Thursday, with this hockey-crazy city in full panic mode after the debacle in Boston, Luongo was captain-like in the way he addressed the media, confidently predicting his team would bounce back. Not a single reporter left Thursday's news conference without gushing about the way he stepped up.
He doesn't wear the "C" anymore, but it was almost Mark Messier-like in terms of a player putting himself on the line when few people outside his dressing room believed in him or his teammates.
"He's a leader," Canucks star center Ryan Kesler said. "He put his best game on the ice tonight and we followed him. He was our best player, and it was great to see."
Luongo looked poised and composed all night long. His pad save on Patrice Bergeron, a bang-bang play in the first period, was his best of the night. He backed his swagger from the previous day with a textbook performance.
"He's got a lot of character," said Canucks blueliner Kevin Bieksa. "He's a battler. He's a competitor. He's not perfect, pucks go in on him, but he's going to battle with everything that he's got. He cares as much as anybody in this room."
Bieksa said he looked over at Luongo before the game and knew his goalie was ready.
"Guys prepare in different ways, but for some reason there was just something about him before the game where he looked very, very confident and he was ready for the challenge," Bieksa said. "He stood on his head for us."
Obviously his teammates aren't going to say anything to the contrary, but the way they have backed their goalie during these playoffs seems honest and emotional.
"He's a world-class goalie, and we have so much confidence in him in this locker room," Canucks winger Alex Burrows said. "It's been like this for the last few years, and it's a good thing we have him because he's been really good throughout these playoffs. Obviously, we'll need him in Game 6 to play the same way."
His bounce-back performance is reminiscent of the way he played in Game 7 against Chicago in the opening round after having been pulled in Games 4 and 5 and getting benched for Game 6. With the season on the line, Luongo was sensational in that Game 7, including an OT stop on Patrick Sharp that stands as the only reason the Canucks are in the position they are today.
"You learn from your experiences," Luongo said. "Whether they're good or bad, you always take something from it and try to use it moving on forward with your life. Obviously that Chicago series was the perfect example. It's a tough two games and you got to find a way to get it done because, obviously, we're still in it and we still have a great opportunity ahead of us. It wasn't time to put your head down or whatever it was. Best of two-out-of-three, and that's the way I looked at it. We got a great opportunity here coming Monday night."
Back to Boston where Luongo, one would think, would rather forget what transpired there. But Friday night, he said bring it on. Now he's looking forward to the hostile environment of TD Garden.
"I like playing on the road, almost more than at home," Luongo said in French. "The opposing crowds pump me up."
It was the home crowd he pumped up Friday night. And you can bet it would suit them just fine if there wasn't another game at Rogers Arena this season.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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