Playoff hockey belongs to goalies. But recently it's belonged to goalies you've barely heard of beforehand—think of Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Miikka Kiprusoff, Cam Ward, Ilya Bryzgalov, Nikolai Khabibulin, Michael Leighton, Ray Emery, Antti Niemi—many of whom you barely hear of afterward, too. Every goalie in that list made a Stanley Cup final from 2003-10. In 2010-11, only two still started for the teams they took to the finals, even though all are still in the NHL. (Same goes for Chris Osgood, who played in the finals with Detroit in '08 and '09, and Dwayne Roloson, who was there with Edmonton in '06.)
This is why it's a little weird, in this era of no-name goalies who get hot, to see Roberto Luongo and his history of consistent excellence in the finals. And it's weirder still to find him playing like he has, stellar in Vancouver and wretched in Boston.
You have to go back to 2003—coincidentally, the last series in which the home team won every game—when Martin Brodeur's Devils won to find another Cup finalist devoting so much of its resources to a goalie. (Luongo and Brodeur have also been the NHL's best goalies since 2003.) The prevailing rational analysis says that if you aren't sure your star goalie is a superstar, you're better off getting an OK one on the cheap.
The teams that give big contracts to good goalies—presently, the Rangers, Panthers, Sabres, Flames, Canucks, Devils, and Wild—stall in the middle rounds, at best. You can do well with a superb goalie taking up a large chunk of your cap, but you won't excel. All of the aforementioned teams sit a scorer or two short of a great run. Conversely: the Sharks, Capitals, Blackhawks, and Flyers have dynasty-worthy skaters and revolving doors in net. (Four words: Corey Crawford, Michal Neuvirth.)
This is, again, why it's a little weird to see Roberto Luongo in the finals. But the Canucks were smart enough to scam the cap two summers ago by signing Luongo to an extension that runs until 2022 (he's already 32), and they have Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff in the last years of their contracts, and, so here we are. Vancouver allowed the fewest goals per game—Luongo is once again a Vezina finalist—and had the league's best record.
Despite Luongo's well-paid superiority, there we were, for three nights in Boston over the past week and change. Luongo gave up 15 goals in 112 minutes of work. That's a goals-against average north of eight, and that's dreadful. In no Cup final in recent memory has the goalie disparity been so great as it was in those three games. Yet we're headed back to Vancouver for game seven with a Sedin guaranteeing victory. Weird.
Weirder still is that Luongo has historically been very good on the road, and against the Bruins. His reputation is that of a postseason choker, but, really, his playoff stats are in line with his regular season performance. Luongo's Beantownmeltdown truly came out of nowhere. And within that mystery was the mystery of game five: 60 (shutout) minutes, the only break from the Blitz. (Without game five, we could just assume Alex Burrows was fucking Luongo's mother.)
Of course, if Roberto Luongo weren't Roberto Luongo, Superstar, Cory Schneider would have played game five, and perhaps started four, and maybe, even, he would have finished the series. And undoubtedly the pressure would be on the Sedins and Ryan Kesler, and Schneider most likely would have joined the ranks of middling finals goalies above. (We graduated from the same high school, so I hope for better things.)
Instead, Luongo's superstardom, such a rarity among goalies in the post-lockout-era finals, will keep him in net for game seven, just as it did for game five. But it will keep the focus squarely on him, too. In all likelihood, Tim Thomas will give up a goal or two, but no more, and how Luongo plays will determine the whole damn thing, the immediate fate of the franchise with all those crazy fans and no Cup. And something tells me it's supposed to be that way.