J.T. Dutch is a long time LA Kings’ fan who, like many of us, has an enduring passion for puck. Since I pride myself in having an eye for talent, I sought J.T. out to write with us. He accepted. We hope you enjoy his first article about the Stanley Cup goaltending match of Roberto Luongo v. Tim Thomas as well hope to see J.T. become a regular contributor around these parts.
So, here we are. We’ve arrived at the moment we’ve all been waiting for – the Stanley Cup Finals start tonight.
The Canucks, a team that was a league-best 50-23-9 without the shootout, going up against the Bruins, whose 44-30-8 record without the shootout placed them third in the East, and would have placed them second in the West. Of the two combatants, one can be considered the clear favorite: the Canucks scored the most goals in the league and allowed the fewest, they knocked off the defending champs in the first round, and have lost only 3 of their last 11 games thereafter. But, not only do the Bruins have arguably the best all-around defenseman in the NHL, they have a man who just turned 37 years old a little over a month ago – a man who has been called by many as the best goaltender in the business today.
But is Tim Thomas really the best there is? Or is it the goalie he’ll be facing in the Final, Roberto Luongo? It’s a fascinating question, and a tale of two Vezina trophy finalists who took completely different paths to get to their first-ever Stanley Cup Final.
Luongo was born in the province of Quebec, a land that has produced some of the most legendary goalies of all time – Georges Vezina (yes, THAT Vezina), Jacques Plante, Patrick Roy, and Bernie Parent. Roberto did his time in the “Q”, at Val-d’Or, then was drafted 4th overall at the age of 18. By 20, he was in the NHL and playing for the team that drafted him, the Islanders. He struggled as a rookie, as so many do; and shuttled between Long Island and the minor league Lowell Lock Monsters. By the end of his second season, Luongo was in the NHL to stay – and, although he was traded twice, his career followed a tremendously linear progression in his first 6-7 years. He went from playing in 24 games in his rookie season to 47 in his second, then to 58, then 65, 72, 75. His win totals increased from 7, to 12, then 16, 20, 25, 35, and 47.
There is a very strong argument to be made that Luongo deserved to win the Vezina Trophy in 03-04, despite a record of 25-33-14. He played 72 games behind a weak Panthers team and led the league in total saves, saves per game, and save percentage – in other words, everything within a goalie’s control. But, the Vezina instead went to Martin Brodeur, largely because of his league-leading total of wins (38) playing behind an elite team in New Jersey. Luongo was branded a “loser”; a mentally weak netminder that “didn’t know how to win” and wasn’t “clutch”.
In 06-07, Luongo arguably deserved to win the Vezina trophy but lost out once again to Brodeur, despite nearly matching Brodeur in save percentage while playing behind a worse defense and thus facing more shots per game. The numbers were close, but Brodeur had the notoriety and got the nod.
In Luongo’s first trip to the playoffs in 06-07, the Canucks were only able to manage 21 goals in 12 games, and while Roberto posted an incredible .941 save percentage, his record was just 5-7. As a common theme, despite the weakness of the teams he played behind, Luongo’s critics derided his apparent inability to win when the games mattered most. As the last several years have passed, the criticism of Luongo has become more and more baffling. He has won a gold medal in the Olympics for Canada, and has been one of the cornerstones of a team that has become truly elite in Vancouver and yet the knock on Luongo is that his teams are now “carrying” him to the achievements he has reached; the quality of the team, which didn’t mean much back when he was losing, now apparently carries tremendous significance.
Is Roberto Luongo the Rodney Dangerfield of goalies? No respect.
For Tim Thomas, a graduate of the University of Vermont, the road has been as crooked as Luongo’s has been linear. It has winded seemingly everywhere. Birmingham. Houston. Helsinki, Finland. Hamilton. Detroit (the Vipers, not the Red Wings). Solna, Sweden. Oulu, Finland. Boston (with the Bruins). Providence. Back to Helsinki. Back to Providence. Then, at the age of 31, finally back to Boston where he has risen to the elite of the NHL. For longtime Kings’ fans, the only parallel for this would be if Rick Knickle had not only come up to the Kings in 1993, but then had proceeded to become a Vezina winner three years later.
Thomas received the Vezina in 2009 almost by acclamation, receiving 22 of a possible 30 first place votes. Tim slipped somewhat in 09-10, but has rebounded brilliantly this season and has posted the highest single-season save percentage (.938) in NHL history.
In the playoffs, Thomas (like Luongo) has found the going more difficult. Thomas’ postseason debut in 2008 saw a first-round exit at the hands of Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens with Thomas struggling at the beginning of the series, very sharp in the middle of it, and actively fighting the puck by the end.
In the 2009 playoffs, Thomas could lay claim to having played pretty well in every appearance except for the critical 4th game of the second round against Carolina, where he faltered in the final period. Boston fell into a 1-3 hole in the series after that game and failed to recover.
In 2010, Thomas lost his #1 job to Tuukka Rask, and watched from the bench as the Bruins again went down in the second round.
The quest for Thomas in this year’s playoffs is to prove that he IS, in fact, as good as his regular season numbers … but with a very shaky performance in the conference final (a sub .900 save percentage in four of the games), questions about his reliability have surfaced once again.
With all of this, how do the two goalies measure up to one another? This season, Thomas not only led the league in traditional save percentage, but also in Shot-Quality Neutral save percentage (.937), a stat that takes into account the difficulty of each save and adjusts the numbers accordingly. Luongo’s save percentage figure (.928) was third in the NHL, and his SQN save percentage (also .928) was fourth, behind not only Thomas but Pekka Rinne of Nashville and Jonas Hiller of Anaheim.
In the playoffs, while Thomas has posted the better overall save percentage, he also has been slightly less consistent. Thomas has seen his SV% fall below 90% in six of his 18 games (33%); Luongo in five of his 18 (28%).
Not that it means too much (but it’s fun to look into it), head to head, Thomas has beaten Luongo in two of three meetings, with each matchup being decided by the slimmest of margins (Thomas led 2-1 on 2/26/11 and won 3-1 on an empty-netter, Thomas won 1-0 on 10/28/08, and Luongo won 4-3 in a shootout on 3-27-06).
Thomas’ SV% against the West was .941, while Luongo’s mark against the East was .939 – again, very little difference.
Is there anything that can clearly differentiate the two netminders? Well, during the season, Luongo’s achilles heel seemed to be playing on the road, where his SV% was only .917, while Thomas’ figure on the road was an amazing .937. In the playoffs, however, it’s been Luongo with the better mark on the road (.925 to Thomas’ .922).
And, on and on it goes. It’s, in part, a tale of two teams with one team looking for its first championship in 38 seasons, the other looking for its first ever title in their 40-season history but it’s also a tale of two of the best goaltenders in this game and each looking to silence their critics and earn the respect that comes with regular season AND postseason success.
Tonight, we’re going to see this tale unfold.