SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) - Roberto Luongo's long break from hockey clearly didn't hurt his form.
Luongo made 34 saves for his 24th career shutout, and Nathan Horton and Lucas Krajicek scored in the third period to lift the Florida Panthers to a 2-0 season-opening victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Wednesday night.
Luongo, who had seven shutouts and a league-record 2,303 saves during the NHL's pre-lockout season of 2003-04, made 10 stops during a 5-minute shorthanded stretch during the third period, holding up a 1-0 lead and ensuring coach Jacques Martin's debut on the Panthers' bench was a winning one.
``He's the best goalie in the league right now,'' Panthers captain Olli Jokinen said. ``He's been top three in the past few years and he showed everyone tonight that he's the top one. With a goalie like him, we have a chance to win every night. And finally, he's got a team in front of him that can win the games.''
Martin became the seventh straight Panthers' coach to win his debut; four of the last five new Florida coaches have been greeted with a shutout.
``Goaltending is a key in this business,'' Martin said. ``And a lot of times you're going to win with goaltending and specialty teams. If you win the specialty team part of a game, you really give yourself a great chance.''
The Thrashers - who lost starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen after one period with a groin injury, a different one than what bothered him for much of training camp - were without their best sniper. Ilya Kovalchuk, who shared the NHL lead with 41 goals in 2003-04, remains a holdout and is threatening to play in his native Russia.
``We have a lot of great players, but he's not here right now,'' Thrashers captain Scott Mellanby said. ``We believe we have a good team with what we have.''
Horton intercepted Mike Dunham's clearing pass along the right wing boards, then sent a quick shot deflecting off the Thrashers' goalie and into the net to break a scoreless tie 1:08 into the third.
``It hit the inside of my glove and squeaked through,'' Dunham said. ``That's a goal I have to have. No question about it.''
But the Panthers gave Atlanta a great opportunity to tie the game; defenseman Branislav Mezei drew a 5-minute major and a game misconduct for boarding with 15:26 left, and Sean Hill was called for hooking 15 seconds later to give the Thrashers a two-man advantage.
Didn't matter. Luongo made six saves, stoning Marian Hossa and Vyacheslav Kozlov during the 5-on-3, and stopped four more while the Panthers killed off the rest of Mezei's penalty.
``It was huge. We had just taken the lead and we had to come up with a big kill,'' Luongo said. ``And the boys did a good job.''
With 3:34 left, Krajicek took a cross-ice pass from Kristian Huselius and sent a wrist shot past Dunham for a power-play goal.
Hockey's new scoring friendly rules - including bigger offensive zones and allowing two-line breakout passes over the center line - were in effect. But teams were scoreless for the first 41 minutes, combining for only 34 shots and few quality scoring chances through the first two periods.
And when Atlanta tried to get rolling, Luongo was at his best.
``He was the dominant factor in this game, no doubt,'' Atlanta coach Bob Hartley said. ``The one thing we could have done was get in front of him better. But we moved the puck well, made some great decisions. But we couldn't finish.''
Notes: Daniel Rodriguez, the former New York police officer who gained widespread acclaim following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for his singing of ``God Bless America,'' performed the national anthem. ... Florida won a season opener for the fifth time in 12 chances; Atlanta has lost four of six openers. ... Huselius' first shot was stopped by Dunham with 8:36 left in the second; Huselius had scored on the opening shot in his previous three seasons. ... The Panthers traded D Filip Novak to Ottawa on Wednesday for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in 2007.
|Nathan Horton (1) ASST: NONE|
1 - 0 FLA
|PPG - Lukas Krajicek (1) ASST: Kristian Huselius (1), Olli Jokinen (1)|
2 - 0 FLA
|Greg De Vries Hooking|
|Greg De Vries Cross checking|
|Joe Nieuwendyk Tripping|
|Jaroslav Modry Hooking|
|Tomas Kloucek Holding|
|Sean Hill Hooking|
|Jaroslav Modry Hooking|
|Kristian Huselius Hooking|
|Mike Van Ryn Tripping|
|Serge Aubin Hooking|
|Branislav Mezei Boarding (maj)|
|Branislav Mezei Game misconduct|
|Sean Hill Hooking|
|Peter Bondra Boarding|
|Niclas Havelid Hooking|
|Greg De Vries Roughing|