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Luongo finally feeling healthy, not being held back by hip

Panthers goalie shakes off nerves from first preseason start, back to evolving game

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo was admittedly nervous heading into his first preseason start last week but the good news was it had nothing to do with the hip problems that plagued him the past year and a half.

In fact, Luongo didn't think about the injury at all while making eight saves in 31:26 against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, and finally feels healthy again heading into this season.

"If you have in the back of your mind 'If I do this is it going to hurt me?' that is going to affect your game," Luongo said. "The main thing is you don't want to be playing a game and worry about what you can or cannot do and I was able to do that."

That's a positive for Panthers fans and a big step for Luongo because the hip, which required surgery for a torn labrum in May 2016 and ended his 2016-17 season six weeks early, was on his mind a lot at the beginning of this offseason.

So much so, the 38-year-old wondered if he might be done playing.

"For a good two- to three-month period it was a battle mentally to just figure out if I could be able to ever come back," Luongo said. "I didn't feel like I was getting better and it was constantly bothering me, so it was as much a mental grind as a physical grind from March until almost June if I could ever fully recover and feel good on the ice."

Luongo was able to answer those questions through an offseason of regular training rather than rehab, and now that he's not worried about his body letting him down, he is excited about a constantly evolving technical game he believes is better than ever.

Panthers goalie coach Rob Tallas could see their first time on the ice together.

"Stepped on the ice early summer and there is the same guy from two summers ago that has that lightness in him, with no thought of soreness, no thought of what if, and he's just playing hockey again and coming to the rink with that enjoyment rather than fear," Tallas said. "If he can capture that and have that same feeling, he's going to be at his best again."

Luongo has played well since being traded back to Florida by the Vancouver Canucks at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline despite injury. He approached rehab the same way he's always approached playing goalie, even wearing down a hole at the bottom of his backyard pool while water training to return for the start of last season. But after an offseason focused on healing instead of preparing, his hip acted up again halfway through, forcing him to shut things down. Luongo finished last season with a .915 save percentage, but was at .924 through mid-December before trying to play through injury for two months.

"Things fell apart about halfway through last year," Luongo said. "I went through some tough times from January all the way to March when we shut her down."

Now that he's heathy, Luongo can get back to an ongoing evolution. He credits a renewed focus on recovering to his posts after saves and the addition of the reverse-VH post integration technique for being able to excel after turning 35.

"My game feels the best it ever has and I understand it more and more every year," Loungo said. "If I played the same way I did 10 years ago I would not be in the League anymore."

The evolution extends to equipment, starting with a switch to composite sticks at the end of 2014-15 because he couldn't practice with his heavier wooden model after breaking a bone in his shoulder. This season, Luongo switched to a custom-fit skate that looks like a player model, with a taller holder on the bottom that makes it easier to get a push edge from his knees.

"If he hears about things other guys are trying, he wants all the information on it," Tallas said. "He's so open to change and to tweak things that will better his game."

Having James Reimer, who finished last season with three shutouts in his final six starts and a .920 save percentage in 43 games, will help Florida ease the workload on its aging No. 1. But Luongo still faces more work in off-day and pregame routines.

"Ten years ago, it used to be a stretch and a coffee and a hot pack," Luongo said with a laugh.

Now he faces 45 minutes of off-ice work just to get warmed up for practice.

"I spend more time getting ready to play than actually playing," Luongo said. "But I love the game so much, so I am willing to do those things to hopefully keep playing as long as I can."

Which brings us back to those nerves before a preseason game.

"I was just as nervous as I was 15-20 years ago and I was asking the guys if it was normal after 17 years in the League to be nervous for a preseason game," Luongo said. "But I feel like if I am not nervous to play that will be the day to hang it up."

Clearly Luongo isn't there yet.

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