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Panthers' Luongo, Jagr excited for playoff push

Florida finding success with mix of veterans, youth

by Arpon Basu @arponbasu / Managing Editor, LNH.com

NASHVILLE -- When Roberto Luongo accepted a trade from the Vancouver Canucks to the Florida Panthers on March 4, 2014, a lot of people thought he was doing what many people do when they relocate to Florida: Preparing to retire.

Less than two years later, Luongo will play in the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Sunday (5 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports) with teammates Aaron Ekblad and Jaromir Jagr and his coach Gerard Gallant behind the bench of the Atlantic Division team, a reward for the Panthers entering the break in first place.

There was no intention on Luongo's part to go to Florida and wind down his career. The intent was to win.

"It's nice to be at the place I envisioned we would be," Luongo said Friday at All-Star weekend media day. "There's still a lot of work left to be done, that goes without saying, and we're not satisfied with anything that we've done so far because really we haven't really done anything. But the growth of our team has been great over the last year-and-a-half and it's just exciting to think about the future and realizing we have a chance to do something special over the next few years."

The Panthers have one of the most unique rosters in the NHL.

They have the oldest forward in the League in Jagr, who turns 44 on Feb. 15, the oldest goalie in Luongo, who will be 37 on April 4, and the second youngest defenseman in Ekblad, who turns 20 on Feb. 7 and is already in his second season. The veterans also include defensemen Willie Mitchell (38 years old) and Brian Campbell (36) and forward Shawn Thornton (38). Then there's Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov (20), Vincent Trocheck (22), Jonathan Huberdeau (22), Nick Bjugstad (23), Alex Petrovic (23), Quinton Howden (24) and Erik Gudbranson (24).

"I don't want to help any GM, but when you think about it, when you're too old, you appreciate the game and you're happy and you do everything just to survive the game," Jagr said. "When you're too young, you are excited, you're young, you're very good but you don't even know how good you are. But when you're middle age, I think you become more selfish and think about yourself, and we don't have those kinds of guys, you know what I'm saying?"

Then, with a big laugh, Jagr said, "Don't sign the middle guys."

The Panthers youth might have led some to consider them a year away from being competitive this season, but there were already signs this was coming last season when the Panthers made a late push toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs before falling short in the end.

"I think we were one of the better teams in the second half of the season," Gallant said. "So I don't think we're surprising teams. I don't think anybody would have said we'd be in first place today in our division, but I think a lot of teams knew we would be a good hockey team. We've had a good first half, we've been pretty healthy for the most part and I think that's a big part of it, but I think every team in the League knows we're a good, solid team."

If they didn't know it before, a 12-game winning streak from Dec. 15 to Jan. 10 made it very clear. But Jagr pointed to how the team came out of that streak as a better reflection of the Panthers' growth as a team.

Florida lost four straight games coming off of that streak, leading some to begin doubting the Panthers once again, especially with back-to-back games against last season's Stanley Cup finalists coming next on the schedule.

Then the Panthers went out and defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-0 on Jan. 22 and the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2 on Jan. 23.

"I think in those two games, we proved to anybody that we can play against anybody," Jagr said.

The Panthers still need to prove that over the second half of the season. But after years of stockpiling young talent and building towards tomorrow, it would appear the Panthers have arrived.

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