If tomorrow's Canada-Sweden gold medal game goes to a shootout, Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo will have some penalty shot experience to draw on, but not a lot. "I've only been in a shootout once, a long time ago in midget, about eight years ago," he revealed after practise today in Helsinki. "There's a lot I can do to prepare for that--in practise, on my own--but I don't want to think about a shootout right now. I just want to think about winning the game, but if we get there I'll be prepared."
Indeed, he does have plenty to think about, because as Canada headed to the medal round he knew he would be relegated to the players' bench while number-one man Sean Burke minded the blue ice for Canada. And as Sweden continued to advance with Tommy Salo in goal, there was an exciting possibility that there would be a rematch from 1997 when Canada beat Sweden to win gold, Burke bettering Salo that year.
But midway through yesterday's semi-finals game against the Czechs, Burke aggravated a groin injury and skated hurriedly to the bench. "Burkie has been unbelievable, so playing never even crossed my mind," Luongo confessed. I knew before the game he wasn't 100%, but I didn't think it was anything serious. When he came off, I knew right away he was gone for the rest of the game."
When he came in Canada was leading 2-0, but his surprise entrance caught him off guard and he was by no means his usual self. "It really was an awkward situation," he admitted. "I have to be honest. It was not an ideal situation. I'm just fortunate the guys scored some goals for me."
They did score, but that was in the third period. It was a save a few minutes after he went in that finally got him mentally and physically into what he called the toughest situation of his career.
"That save I made at the end of the second with about ten seconds left made me feel pretty good, but still there's a certain comfort zone you have when you're starting and prepared and ready to go. If you're backing up it doesn't mean you're not prepared, but it's different from when you're starting.
It's also different if you're backing up Burke or the second goalie for a NHL team on which you're usually the number-one man. In that situation, there's always a chance Luongo's backup will have a bad game, but at this level, there was no way Burke was going to leave the game after allowing half a dozen goals. Truly, Luongo's appearance was completely unexpected. The Czechs managed to tie the game 3-3 early in the third, but the Canadians rallied after Andy Murray called a timeout, and Luongo was steady the rest of the way.
As a result of the injury, he will also start tomorrow's gold medal game. "Already last night Burkie was saying he wasn't feeling too good and might not be able to play, and this morning he didn't come on the ice at all. For me, the preparation started last night." And you can be sure he'll be more ready tomorrow than he was for yesterday's period and a half of work.
"This is the biggest game of my career, so it'll be fun," he enthused. "I was there at the World Juniors, but the colour of the medal will be different this time."
That was 1999, and he and his teenaged Canadian teammates went to the final game only to lose to Russia 4-3 in overtime. He also won two Memorial Cups in the Quebec league, but this would be numero uno. "This would be the number one moment in my career," Luongo confirmed. "A gold medal would be amazing and top everything so far until I win the Stanley Cup.
Part of his preparation will be to spend some time with Burke and learn from a pro whose international career began back in 1986 with the Izvestia Cup when Luongo was seven years old. "I haven't had a chance to talk to Sean yet, but I'm sure we'll get a chance to chat a bit today," Luongo suggested.
His efforts will be helped on the one hand because he knows most of the Swedes from NHL play, but it will be hindered because those are top quality players he'll be facing. "I was watching the game yesterday and they were pulling some sick moves," he said, impressed by the play of Tre Kronor's great stars. "You have to be patient. You can't commit to them early. Against Sundin and Forsberg, I've had some success in the past being aggressive, so I'll have to try to do that tomorrow."
Luongo has played twice before in this year's tournament, a 6-1 win over Latvia in the Preliminary Round and a 2-0 shutout of the Swiss in the Qualifying Round. "My approach is always the same," he said of his game-day preparations, regardless of opponent. "Each game is hard in its own way. Against other teams (i.e., Latvia and Switzerland) it's tougher mentally to stay in the game because I might not get that many shots, but Sweden has more skill so they'll have more scoring chances. It's two different kinds of games but my approach is always the same."
Are you more excited or nervous? "It's a great dream and it's exciting, but I'm also a little nervous because it's a big game. A mixture of both is a good thing, I think."
Luongo represents Canada's goaltending future in international play, whether it's next year's World Championships or the bigger events like the World Cup in the fall of 2004 and the 2006 Olympics in Turino.
For now, there's only one concern, and that's tomorrow's showdown. Canada. Sweden. One game. Winner gets gold.