It really is one game at a time
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — One of these days people will realize this simple fact: There is absolutely no such thing as game-to-game “momentum’’ in the world of sports.
One game is one game, or in the case of Games 3 and 4 in this series, two games are two games, especially when the team getting its butt resoundingly kicked is the team playing on the road.
Teams good enough to reach the Stanley Cup Final have the capacity to clear their heads and move on. That’s what the Vancouver Canucks did after losing two games by a combined 12-1 score in Boston. They returned home to Rogers Arena, beat the Bruins, 1-0, last night, and now are one win away from having their names inscribed on the most famous trophy in North American sport.
And as for all the hullabaloo about Roberto Luongo’s psyche? Next question.
He was pretty bad in Boston, although he was hardly alone in stinking up the joint. But he answered those who thought Canucks coach Alain Vigneault had lost his mind in starting him last night by posting a 31-save shutout. This is not to say he was the better goaltender, because he wasn’t. Tim Thomas faced more quality shots. But all a man can do is stop what’s thrown at him, and Luongo did that.
“He was really good,’’ said Canucks center Ryan Kesler. “He responded well. That’s what elite players do. He was our best player tonight.’’
It was a game of mounting tension, scoreless for more than 44 minutes before the villainous Max Lapierre found just enough space on the short side to get one by Thomas on a play initiated by defenseman Kevin Bieksa, the chap whose weird goal against San Jose had gotten the Canucks into the Final. Also assisting was Raffi Torres, the professional noodge whose goal had settled the first game a scant 18.5 seconds before the teams would have headed to overtime. Losing to the firm of Lapierre & Torres makes the loss just a bit more annoying.
It would be wise for Bruins fans to remember that players don’t really care about the final score, no matter which side they are on. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 1-0 or 8-1,’’ said Luongo. “A win is a win and a loss is a loss.’’
Nothing in professional sports is more misleading, or more aberrational, than the rout. There is always a point in routs that what happens afterward is of relevance only to the stat man doing his job and the fans who love to see scores mount. The Canucks didn’t care whether the final score of Game 3 was 4-1, 8-1, or 118-1. They had lost, period. And when they lost Game 4 by a 4-0 score, their immediate rationalization was, “Hey, we’re still tied and we’ve got two of the next three at home.’’
“It doesn’t matter,’’ insisted Kesler in reference to the Boston disasters. “It’s a loss. You look at the video. It just doesn’t matter how big you win by or how much you lose by.’’
The Bruins could not complain about the officiating. Here they were, the road team, getting four power plays — the first at 1:39 of the first period — before the Canucks had any. Milan Lucic tested Luongo on the first one, but that was the only true top-quality scoring opportunity in those power plays. Luongo demonstrated that he was alert and focused, but the reality is he was being very well-served by his mates, who had come under fire locally for letting him down badly in Boston.
If you were grading these teams on the eye test, the Bruins were the better team in the first period, but the Canucks were clearly the aggressors in the second. And there’s no doubt who won the third.
“I think tonight, as a whole, they were the better team,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “We have to acknowledge that.’’
Once again, the individual story of the game was Thomas, who continued his sparkling play, and who, depending on the outcome of the series, remains the leading candidate to win the Conn Smythe Award as the outstanding player of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The winning goal was only the second scored on him in more than eight periods of play, and he was so frustrated he banged his fist on the ice after retrieving the puck.
It might be a reach to say the Canucks were totally transformed with the change of venue, but they definitely looked more comfortable. “We lost our focus in Boston,’’ acknowledged Henrik Sedin (at least I think it was Henrik. No, just kidding). “We got our confidence back tonight. Yeah, we were more focused. We got a little bit rattled on the road and got away from our game.’’
They certainly came out flying, racking up a 23-13 hit advantage in the first period. Who knows? Perhaps they felt they had let the Green Men down after they had traveled all that way to see them play.
It was the third one-goal game the Canucks have won on their home ice. That’s nice, but not particularly relevant to the Big Picture. In order to celebrate properly, they will need to win one more — somewhere.
“I’ve said it a thousand times,’’ sighed Vigneault. “Now I’ll say it a thousand one. It’s one game at a time.’’
Call it a cliché if you like, but true professionals realize there is no other way to approach it.