Team Canada’s coaching staff will hold a press conference Monday in Sochi, where surely one of the first questions Mike Babcock gets will pertain to his goaltending plans. Will he go with Roberto Luongo, the man who stepped in for Martin Brodeur and back-stopped Canada to Winter Olympics gold in 2010, or will it be Carey Price, who unlike Luongo hasn’t lost his last five NHL starts for a team that’s stuck in its worst slump in years?
With the possible exception of Alex Ovechkin, there may not be a player in today’s game that’s spurred more debate than Luongo. In Vancouver, where he’s been since 2006, he’s been the most talked-about athlete in the city’s history. And in his last five starts for the Canucks — all regulation losses, though certainly not all his fault — the 34-year-old has allowed 17 goals on 142 shots, for an unenviable save percentage of .880.
According to the Vancouver Province, when asked about the state of his game, Luongo paused before replying with, “I don’t know. Obviously, we haven’t won, so it’s tough from that side of things.”
Back in 2010, following Canada’s loss to the United States in the preliminary round, Babcock explained his decision to sit Brodeur and turn to Luongo like this: “We’re in the winning business. To win at in any game at any level you need big saves. You need momentum-changing saves. We’re looking for [Luongo] to do that for us.”
And in the end, Luongo came through. But that was four years ago. Hockey fans don’t need to be told how much water’s gone under Luongo’s bridge in the time since.
In Price, Babcock has a 26-year-old who’s allowed just three goals in his last three games, with a sky-high save percentage of .971. All three were Montreal wins. And remember what business Babcock’s in.
Now, of course, one must consider both goalies’ overall body of work, not just their last few games. It’s not like Price is throwing a perfect game in the NHL. Far from it. And there’s something to be said for his lack of big-game experience, of which Luongo has plenty, even if it hasn’t always gone his way in those games.
The challenge for Babcock will be getting a good handle on his netminders before his team faces a must-win game. Tournament minnows Norway and Austria are Canada’s first two opponents in the preliminary round — and Luongo and Price may split those games — before a slightly tougher test against injury-ravaged Finland. After that, it’s likely a spot in the win-or-go-home quarterfinals.
Let the Great Canadian Debate begin.