Roberto Luongo

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.

Devils unveil ‘The Salute’ statue in honor of Martin Brodeur

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The New Jersey Devils on Monday unveiled ‘The Salute’ — a statue paying homage to one of the greatest goalies in NHL history, Martin Brodeur, who will have his No. 30 uniform retired Tuesday at Prudential Center.

“Looking at the pictures of my career and some of the events that meant a lot to me, I always saluted the fans,” Brodeur, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Devils, told the Fire and Ice blog.

“That picture, at different times, in different jerseys, actually, like with Team Canada, it all came to that same pose.”

More on the statue from the Devils:

The 900-pound bronze statue was created by renowned sculpture and artist Jon Krawczyk, who worked with Brodeur on the design. Krawczyk, a Boonton Township, N.J. native and lifelong Devils fan, who also created the hockey statue on Championship Plaza outside of Prudential Center, personally drove “The Salute” from his Malibu, Cali. studio to the arena late last week.

Video: Panthers furious after Abdelkader ‘cheap shot’ hit on Barkov

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The Florida Panthers are fuming after their skilled 20-year-old forward Aleksander Barkov left Monday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings following a hit from Justin Abdelkader.

Abdelkader caught Barkov with a hard hit near the goal line as the Panthers player tried to move the puck up ice early in the second period.

The only call on the play was to Panthers’ blue liner Alex Petrovic for the retaliatory cross check on Abdelkader. Barkov left the game and didn’t return with an upper-body injury.

Members of the Panthers irate with the hit, and the fact there was no call.

“It was a cheap hit, I don’t know how the ref didn’t call it,” Nick Bjugstad told the Miami Herald. “It was frustrating, the whole bench felt that way. We’re not happy with it. It turned the game around. Barkov has tough shoes to fill. It looked pretty serious. We’ll see how the league handles it and I think they will. I just don’t know how it wasn’t handled on the ice.”

“You hate to lose your top player, but that’s part of the game,” added Panthers’ head coach Gerard Gallant.

“We’re disappointed to lose him. I thought it was a cheap shot but the referees didn’t see it that way and explained to me it was a clean check. It’s tough. It happens quick and we get to see the replay. I think it’ll be looked at. [Abdelkader] left his feet a little and got him in the jaw.”

The Panthers gave up three goals in the third period in a 3-0 loss to the Red Wings.

Penguins thump the Ducks as Crosby’s hot streak continues

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In a meeting between two clubs enjoying hot streaks and their own subsequent climbs through the standings, the Pittsburgh Penguins bested the Anaheim Ducks courtesy another dominant Sidney Crosby performance on Monday.

After that slow start, Crosby has put together a growing number of dominant performances of late.

The latest, a four-point night, helped the Penguins to a 6-2 final over the Ducks, stopping Anaheim’s winning streak at six games.

— He extended his scoring streak to a career best seven games, and did so with two beauty goals versus the Ducks.

— From Dec. 18 to Feb. 8, he’s appeared in 21 games. In that span, he’s recorded 34 points.

— Crosby is now into the top five among NHL players in points, with 53 in 51 games this season.

He wasn’t the only Pittsburgh player to have a big night. Keep in mind, Evgeni Malkin wasn’t even in the lineup due to a lower-body injury.

Ten different Penguins players recorded points. In addition to Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang had multi-point efforts, and four players — Kunitz, Crosby, Olli Maatta and Patric Hornqvist — were plus-four.

The Penguins now move into third in the Metropolitan Division, while the New York Islanders slip into the first Wild Card spot in the East. Pittsburgh’s lead over the Islanders, however, is only one point.

The Islanders also have a game in hand.

Panthers’ Barkov (upper-body injury) leaves game versus Red Wings

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The Florida Panthers will be without Aleksander Barkov for the remainder of their game versus the Detroit Red Wings on Monday.

As per multiple reports, Barkov will not return due to an upper-body injury suffered after a hit from Justin Abdelkader early in the second period.

Abdelkader wasn’t given a penalty on the play. Barkov didn’t play another shift after that hit.

In 42 games this season, the 20-year-old Barkov has 16 goals and 35 points.