It might be a bit of a stretch to hype a “matchup” between goalies Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo in these Stanley Cup finals. After all, the two netminders are really dueling with Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks shooters, not pucks sent off each others’ sticks. Technically, it’s not really about Thomas vs. Luongo; it’s Thomas vs. the Canucks against Luongo vs. the Bruins.
Then again, looking at the situation is entirely less fun, isn’t it? Ultimately, most writers and fans will perceive each goalie’s performance in association with the opposition output.
Thomas receives the most attention because the Bruins are viewed as the lesser team (and because his acrobatic, almost anarchic style tends to steal the spotlight, too). Fair or not, Luongo’s successes seem to be obscured because of the superior cast around him, letting the pitfalls and triumphs of his counterpart’s aggressiveness snatch the headlines.
Yet through two skin-tight games, these two very different goalies have given us the performances we expected.
Luongo’s path from passivity
During the off-season, I wondered if the Canucks were messing with a good thing by asking Luongo to play deeper in his crease after years of using his size further out of his net. Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild disagreed with my gut reaction and it looks like his instincts were dead-on.
Goldman shared three keys to Luongo’s success in a column for NHL.com. After explaining that decision making is the first major factor that distinguishes goalies on the elite level, Goldman discusses two other reasons Luongo is on top of his game.
2. Because Luongo plays a patient butterfly style deeper in his crease, he’s forced to make better decisions on when to employ a positional blocking save and when to make a reaction save. As a result, he has essentially gone from being a more “passive” goalie to having more “active” save selections in his game.
3. This reveals the fact that Luongo has the ability to balance his skill-set with an equal number of blocking and reacting skills. This balance, which could be considered like having an ambidextrous mind, is crucial to the read-and-react butterfly style that continues to be incorporated in today’s successful and elite NHL goaltender.
The danger of doubting Thomas
On Boston’s end, Thomas sprawls and flails, leaving us gasping for air as he stops pucks that seem predestined for twine. We cringe at his rare – but occasionally fatal – lapses, perhaps ignoring the fact that his style is the clearest “live by the sword, die by the sword” paradigm in the increasingly homogenous profession that is NHL netminding.
Those two last minute goals may end up crushing the Bruins, but this team – and more precisely, this goalie – rolls with punches without taking much time to flinch. Thomas didn’t get to the NHL by giving up easily, an attitude that is revealed every time he makes another downright irrational stop.
Goldman points out some of the high points of his Game 2.
Thomas’ absorption rate was through the roof in Game 2. This ability to collapse and condense his upper body in order to “soak up” shots above the waist was very impressive. It was a visible sign that he was focused and relaxed for Game 2. It also proved just how well he mentally prepared from the end of Game 1 to the start of Saturday night’s showdown. Aside from Alex Burrows’ first goal, no pucks got through Thomas — not even deflections or tipped shots.
Decision making has been the difference so far
Ultimately, Luongo’s more economical game meant less highlight reel saves through the first two contests, but also less back-breaking goals allowed. I think it’s wrong to badmouth Thomas for being who he is – especially since it works most of the time – but those little mistakes have been the difference so far. Goldman agrees on that point.
… I feel that Luongo has a slight edge on Thomas in regards to their decision-making in the Stanley Cup Final. Luongo has made the more conservative decisions so far, and that has proved to be more successful, especially in light of Thomas’ decision in overtime of Game 2.
Of course, two games is a small sample and Thomas seems to get better as the games get bigger. We’ll see which goalie wins Round 3 tonight.