MONTREAL — The man who’s always quick with a joke is pretty serious about what he’s doing right now.
That would be Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo, who breached the top-10 on the NHL’s all-time shutout list on Monday with the 76th of his career and didn’t spare a thought to the accomplishment afterwards.
He’s all business.
“The focus is not on reminiscing; it’s on making sure we focus on what’s ahead of us right now,” said Luongo. “Right now it’s all about winning hockey games.”
If the Panthers have done a lot of that of late—Monday’s 2-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens was Florida’s 16th in their last 22 games—it’s had much to do with what the 38-year-old Montreal native has offered.
Luongo wasn’t tested all that often in this one—the scoresheet said he faced 28 shots, though very few of them forced him to be otherworldly—but he came up huge when it mattered most.
That was before the Panthers got a huge goal from defenceman Aaron Ekblad and never looked back against the (injury-riddled) Canadiens. It was also about eight minutes after Aleksander Barkov scored 6:23 into the third period—when a dominant performance was put in jeopardy by seconds of loose hockey.
It was while Ekblad was serving five minutes for fighting Nicolas Deslauriers—and Panthers defenceman Alex Petrovic was doing the same for taking on Mike McCarron—that Canadiens forward Daniel Carr posted up in front of Luongo. The puck came to Carr and he spun around and popped it through his legs in one fell swoop for a great chance that Luongo stole from him.
The Panthers were down 5-1 in shots at that point, they had gotten off to a nervous start, and Luongo had made the play that turned the tide.
“That changed the game,” said Panthers defenceman Mark Pysyk. “If he doesn’t make that save, who knows what happens?”
And if Luongo hadn’t stretched across his crease and stolen another sure goal from Carr with six and a half minutes to play in the third period, this game could’ve had a very different outcome.
“Any time you can have a goalie who time after time makes huge saves like those, it’s huge for the team,” said Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck. “He’s a big leader in this locker room. Always has been since he’s been in Florida. He’s a true professional, and everybody’s ears perk up whenever he starts to talk.
“The way he’s been playing, and the way he carries himself, is such a huge part of our success—especially over these last 20 or so games.”
Wins over Calgary, Winnipeg, Washington, Pittsburgh, Toronto, New Jersey and Boston in recent weeks have helped inspire the belief that’s carried the Panthers to within three points of the East’s final playoff spot.
The one against Montreal Monday was just as big. Granted, they’re a team currently playing with 12 players who were in the AHL at one point or another this season. A team Canadiens coach Claude Julien called “not very good,” following Monday’s game.
But the Panthers dropped games against the bottom-feeding Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers last week and put themselves in an absolute must-win situation against the Canadiens.
It was Luongo who had allowed five goals to Ottawa and he had beat himself up considerably about allowing three to the Oilers.
“We have no doubt. We see [Luongo] on a daily basis and even if he has an off-game, we know what he’s going to come back with,” said Panthers coach Bob Boughner. “He’s that kind of pro, and he means everything to this team.”
They’d not be hunting down the New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers without him putting up the NHL’s fifth-best save percentage (.928) in his 27 starts this season.
A groin injury suffered in early December cost Luongo six weeks of his season. But he’s won nine games and picked up an extra point in a shootout loss to the Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning in his 13 starts since.
Luongo had been forced to make over 35 saves in seven of those games, but on Monday it was the Panthers applying the pressure with 40 shots of their own on Canadiens goaltender Antti Niemi. He did what he had to do, and he’ll continue to be counted on to do so as the Panthers forge through a schedule that will make their push towards the Stanley Cup Playoffs tumultuous. A schedule that will force them to play against the Blue Jackets (winners of eight straight) this week, and one that will pit them against some of the NHL’s best (three games against Boston, one against Toronto and one against Nashville).
“I told the guys this morning—and we’ve been concentrating on it that last few days—that with our games in hand (two on eighth-placed New Jersey and three on both Columbus and Philadelphia) we just have to concentrate on what we can control,” said Boughner. “That’s playing good hockey.”
Mission accomplished for Luongo and the Panthers in Montreal.