My brother said to me yesterday, "If Canada wins, everyone will think Luongo is a great goalie...for all the wrong reasons."
Sure enough, there are lots of articles out there today about how Roberto Luongo has overcome his demons and gone from choker to clutch in the last six days. Take this one from NHL.com, for example, that is titled "Luongo now has proof that he's among the game's elite."
What was this proof? Was it the fact that Luongo has the highest save percentage of any goalie in the league with 250+ games played since he broke in as a rookie in 1999-00? Is it that he appears headed towards his ninth consecutive year with an even strength save percentage of .925 or better? Perhaps it was 51 career shutouts, despite playing most of his career in the high shots against environment of New York and Florida? Or being named as one of the top 2 goalies for the best hockey-playing country in the world in the last four best-on-best international tournaments? Maybe the journalist was convinced by Mike Babcock, who pointed out last week that Luongo's bank account shows he is one of the highest-paid goalies in the league?
Nope. It was that the highest-scoring team in the NHL era of the Olympics won the gold medal with Luongo in net. It's amazing how one game can have such a big effect on opinion, either for the good (gold medal win) or the bad (game 6 vs. Chicago).
I did think that Luongo coped very well with the intense pressure of a country that expected and demanded the gold medal. He kept saying how much fun he was having, and clearly relished the moment. He also managed to steer clear of the pitfall that caught other top goalies like Martin Brodeur, Miikka Kiprusoff, Evgeni Nabokov and Henrik Lundqvist, that one poor game that helped sink their team's chances of victory. But I don't think Luongo was really a difference-maker during the Olympics, at least not in the same way Ryan Miller and at times Jonas Hiller were.
Luongo's performance in Vancouver was actually pretty reminiscent of Martin Brodeur's play in 2002. Sorry for being the hundredth person to bring you that completely unoriginal thought, but that doesn't make it any less true. They both began as the team's #2 option, they both never really stood on their heads for any particular game, they both received attention for a big save in a 3-2 game (Luongo on Demitra, Brodeur on Brett Hull), and they both might have saved their best game of the tournament until last, where they gave up two goals in the gold medal game against the United States.
The tournament stats definitely share a resemblance:
Brodeur, 2002: 4-0-1, 1.80, .917
Luongo, 2010: 5-0-0, 1.76, .927
For my money, Patrick Roy still owns the best Olympic performance by a Canadian NHL goalie. Despite that, St. Patrick came home without any medal at all. Goaltending can have a big impact in a short tournament, but there is a very good reason why 20 other players also get to bring home the gold.
I'm interested to see if Luongo picks up the same post-Olympic gold medal "bounce" in public perception and award voting that Martin Brodeur did in 2002. No doubt there will still be a small element out there that will keep doubting the Vancouver goalie until his team achieves some more NHL postseason success, but this year's Canucks squad is probably the best team he has ever played on. Luongo has a special opportunity this season to completely change the way the average hockey fan thinks about him. Even if it is for all the wrong reasons.