Roberto Luongo’s legacy is on the line as he gets the start against Chicago in Game 7

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Amid all the craziness of this flipped-upside-down Chicago Blackhawks vs. Vancouver Canucks series, it only seems right that it comes down to Roberto Luongo in Game 7.

It doesn’t really matter that he’s looking more nervous than a high school kid before a first date. The Blackhawks’ psychological edge is growing with each crippling win – whether those victories come in blowouts or overtime shockers – but this is one of those moments when a highly paid player needs to earn his money. To extend the analogy, Luongo is now that unemployed post-grad who needs to get his head out of the clouds and just get the job done.

The Vancouver Canucks might not be comfortable with this situation, but they must live and die with their $10 million franchise goalie on Tuesday night. Alain Vigneault announced that he will start Game 7 and also said that the team told him he’d start that decisive game even before they went with Cory Schneider in Game 6.

Fair or not, a win or loss in Game 7 will have an enormous impact on Luongo’s potential Hall of Fame legacy.

He’s had an oddball career up this point. After being chosen fourth overall in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders, Luongo had a falling out with team management and was eventually traded to the Florida Panthers in 2000. He was rightly described as a hidden gem in Florida for five seasons, putting up outstanding numbers despite a heavy workload and facing a ridiculous amount of shots (including an NHL record 2,488 in 2005-06 and 2,475 in 03-04).

Luongo “escaped” from Florida after that 05-06 season in another comically one-sided trade that sent him to Vancouver in an exchange that included Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen and Alex Auld.

Since then, his reputation has hit some interesting peaks and valleys. He became an unofficial captain during the 2009-10 season, an outside-the-box move that ultimately backfired. Luongo won a gold medal with Team Canada in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics after Martin Brodeur faltered. After years of carrying an awful team, Luongo now benefits from an elite supporting cast while sporadically receiving blame for his team’s worst defeats.

Make no mistake about it, though. This troubling rivalry against the Blackhawks is almost growing into a complex at this point.

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Vigneault was at least half-correct when he said “He’s been on the big stage before, he’ll be fine.” Luongo is accustomed to big-time pressure, but judging from the last two starts and one ill-fated relief appearance, it’s tough to argue that he’s truly “fine.”

Yet the Hollywood scriptwriters in all of us want to see how he responds, even if the collective blood pressure of the Canucks fan base will suffer. Ultimately, Luongo might not be able to totally mute his naysayers with a big performance, but a win would help him at least turn the volume down.

That’s because win or lose, Game 7’s have a tendency to amplify things.

Pre-game reading: Does the NHL’s playoff format need fixing?

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— Up top, Brian Boucher and Mike Milbury have their say on NHL participation in the Olympics, something Gary Bettman continues to put into doubt.

— At least fans can still be certain there will be playoff hockey. That being said, does the NHL’s format need fixing? Because as it stands right now, at least one of Washington, Pittsburgh, or Columbus is guaranteed to be gone after the first round, and only one of those three can survive past the second round. The Capitals, Penguins, and Blue Jackets are first, second, and third in the overall standings, respectively. Hence, the debate. (The Washington Post)

— The Caps take on the Blue Jackets tonight in D.C., and Barry Trotz is looking forward to the fight for playoff positioning. The Caps, you’ll recall, coasted to first place in the Metro Division last season. But they can’t afford to coast now. “Having gone both routes now, I prefer this,” Trotz said. “Because it’s more meaningful. … It was in our hands too early last year, and I think it took a little edge off. You get too comfortable for too long, you get too soft.” (Washington Post)

— Don’t expect the NBA’s controversial practice of resting star players to become a common problem for the NHL. Said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty: “I just think hockey’s a different kind of animal where I don’t think guys would want to do it. Guys are stubborn enough to probably fight it if they were asked and that’s how I would see that going down.” (Canadian Press)

— Why Dave Hakstol won’t be fired, by Flyers beat reporter Dave Isaac, who writes: “It took multiple pleas to woo Hakstol from a much more comfortable college job at the University of North Dakota. To fire Hakstol this early would be an admission from Hextall that this part of his grand plan — hiring the coach that he thought would grow with the roster — was wrong.” (Courier-Post)

William Nylander may sometimes get overshadowed in Toronto by fellow Maple Leafs rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. But with 20 goals in 70 games, what Nylander has done is still very impressive. (The Hockey News)

Enjoy the games!

Bowling Green goalie Nell leaves school, signs with Rangers

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The Blueshirts added to their goaltending depth on Thursday, signing Bowling Green junior Chris Nell to an entry-level contract.

Nell, 22, just wrapped his junior campaign at Bowling Green, going 17-14-2 with a 2.15 GAA and .916 save percentage. This year, he became the school’s all-time leader in career shutouts, this after a terrific sophomore campaign in which he finished with a sparking 1.31 GAA and .930 save percentage.

An undrafted free agent, Nell now joins an organization with several young netminders in the mix. Mackenzie Skapski, a 2013 draftee, made his NHL debut two years ago but has struggled this season, splitting time between AHL Hartford and ECHL Greenville. Brandon Halverson, a second-rounder in ’14, has also split time between Hartford and Greenville, and was recently recalled to New York on an emergency basis.

New York has also drafted Russian netminder Igor Shesterkin (fourth round, ’14), Slovak Adam Huska (seventh round, ’15) and UMass-Lowell product Tyler Wall (sixth round, ’16).

 

On verge of missing playoffs, Red Wings aim to keep winning culture

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The Detroit Red Wings have no intention of tearing their roster down and undertaking a painful rebuild, a la the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Why not, you ask?

Because even though the Wings are going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990, and even though their leading scorer (Henrik Zetterberg) is 36 years old, they don’t want to lose the culture that made them so successful over the past quarter century.

“There are organizations where they have lost culture,” said head coach Jeff Blashill, per the Detroit Free Press. “They have missed the playoffs, and they miss it 10 straight years. We don’t want to be in this position again. This isn’t OK. That is the approach we are taking every day.”

We have heard other teams say similar things. For example, the Vancouver Canucks. (Which won’t make Wings fans feel great to hear.)

While there’s nothing wrong with trying to maintain a winning culture, the biggest challenge the Wings have is a lack of talent — particularly on the back end.

That’s up to GM Ken Holland to solve, and solve relatively quickly, given his lack of appetite for a lengthy rebuild.

“We’re going to continue to try and be competitive, we’re going to continue to try and make the playoffs and our ultimate goal is to eventually be a Cup contender,” Holland said a few months ago.

“To me, rebuild means eight to 10 years, and there are teams that have made the playoffs one year in 10 while rebuilding.”

Related: It’s going to be a very different draft for the Red Wings

Yeo more surprised than anyone to learn of Stastny injury

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For the second time since taking over as head coach, Mike Yeo has lost the services Paul Stastny.

This time, though, Yeo was caught off guard.

“It may sound misleading, but it was a completely separate injury that kept him out of (Tuesday’s) game and one that we believed would have him possibly in the lineup for us tonight,” Yeo told the Post-Dispatch of Stastny’s lower-body ailment, which will keep him out week-to-week. “We were surprised to hear that this came about yesterday.

“Believe me, I was probably more surprised than all the fans out there. So it’s a difficult one, but one that we’ll have to overcome.”

Stastny was limited to less than four minutes of ice time during Tuesday’s 4-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche. Initially, Yeo indicated that the issue wasn’t serious — and it very well may not haven been — but that’s irrelevant now, as an entirely new issue could potentially sideline Stastny for the remainder of the regular season.

The Blues are in good shape for a playoff spot, up eight points on L.A., but are jockeying with Nashville for third spot in the Central Division (both head into tonight’s action with 83 points). St. Louis also has 10 games left.

There’s no denying Stastny’s absence will be felt. Back when he missed four games in early February, Yeo noted how integral he was to the club.

“He’s usually the first guy over the boards for a power-play faceoff or the first guy over the boards for a penalty-kill faceoff, and those are key,” Yeo said, per the Blues website. “He’s a very important player for us. You don’t take out a top-line center from too many lineups where they don’t feel that.”

Limited to just 66 games this season, Stastny has still managed to score 18 goals — third-most on the team — and 40 points. He also averages a healthy 19:08 TOI per night.