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Panthers' Luongo defying age with stellar season

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- Unlike so many Canadians heading south to Florida, goaltender Roberto Luongo was not looking for a more laid-back life when the Florida Panthers acquired him from the Vancouver Canucks prior to the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline.

"I didn't go there to just retire," Luongo said this week during his latest return to Vancouver. "We don't go there to enjoy the sun and all that other stuff. It's about winning hockey games."

Winning drives almost everything Luongo does. He entered 11 fantasy football pools this season and won six. He returned from the hospital to finish a game late last season with a broken bone in his shoulder because backup Al Montoya was hurt during the same game.

Luongo, the oldest goalie in the League at 36, has been winning a lot lately, including nine straight during a 12-game win streak by the Panthers that tied for 10th-longest in NHL history before a 3-2 overtime loss Monday to his former team, the Canucks. His 19 wins are tied for fourth in the League.

He has a .927 save percentage in 35 games (it was .930 before he allowed four goals on 15 shots in a 6-0 loss at the Calgary Flames on Wednesday) and is having one of the best seasons of his NHL career at an age when most goaltenders are expected to decline statistically.

In addition to being well above his career .920 save percentage that ranks sixth all-time among goalies to play 250-plus games, Luongo is on pace to become the fourth NHL goalie (Tim Thomas, Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek) with a save percentage above .925 following his 36th birthday.

Only Thomas, who had a .938 save percentage and won the Vezina Trophy and Stanley Cup ahead of Luongo in 2011, had better numbers at this age, though Hasek's Vezina Trophy-winning .921 at age 36 in 2000-01 is even more impressive considering the NHL average was .013 lower at the time.

Roy finished second in Vezina voting after he had a .925 at age 36, but he played only one more season before retiring, in part because of chronic hip pain.

The hip problems that often plague the current generation of butterfly goaltenders have not bothered Luongo. Although he's not yet thinking about keeping pace with Hasek, who played until he was 43, he also doesn't plan on slowing down anytime soon.

The 12-year, $64 million contract that runs until Luongo is 41 no longer seems so long.

"When I get there in about 9-10 years, we will see," Luongo said. "But obviously I want to play as long as I can and as long as my body allows me too. … My body has always felt good, so that was never a question, and I have been working on my game a lot, as I always did."

It's the constant work to improve his game that drives Luongo's ability to improve with age.

Ironically, one of the biggest strides started his final season in Vancouver before he finally put a few tumultuous seasons behind him with a return to the Panthers.

Luongo started adding reverse-VH technique to his post-integration options on sharp angles and plays from behind the net during that final season in Vancouver. Previously, he had used a traditional VH technique, with the short-side pad pressed up against the post vertically and the back pad flat on the ice. He initiated the change himself during his annual offseason tinkering, and drove the development of it during his final season with Roland Melanson, the Canucks goaltending coach.

The refinement of the technique continued in Florida, placing the short-side pad along the ice and that toe against the post, with the back pad off the ice and the backside skate used to drive coverage into, and help the goaltender pivot around, the post.

"For me, it's amazing," Luongo said. "You guys saw how many goals from bad angles were going in. It still happens once in a while; it happens to everybody, but there is so much more control when you are in the reverse and you can cover the short side while being able to read the play or make a shorter push to the other side."

Reverse also keeps more of Luongo's 6-foot-3 frame inside the net, which complements the other alteration to his style that has changed dramatically since the return to Florida.

Luongo went to Switzerland two summers ago to work with his brother, Leo, a goaltending coach for HC Lugano, and the focus was on always recovering to his posts.

"We went through a lot of repetitions and video with him and he is big on that, he preaches 'just go back to the post,'" Luongo said. "It's always post, everything is post, just because it just keeps you in control, you don't go sliding out and all of a sudden there is a bad bounce and an empty net. Going to your post gives you a chance."

Having a chance to work on those changes in the summer with Panthers goaltending coach Robbie Tallas also helped Luongo, who credits those sessions for avoiding the miserable October starts that plagued him during his time in Vancouver, creating a statistical hole that haunted him well into December.

"[Luongo] called me in the middle of July, and we were on the ice Aug. 1," Tallas said. "He's been on the ice four days a week since, and it just shows he wants to win. Part of that too is he knows at this age what he needs exactly and he's refined his game so he knows where he needs to be in situations and just works on them all the time."

It doesn't hurt that the Panthers, unlike that final season under coach John Tortorella in Vancouver, are playing a system built to Luongo's strengths of reading plays and making controlled saves. Luongo also has learned to lighten his workload when needed, avoiding back-to-back games unless the situation is desperate.

Tempering a competitive nature isn't easy for Luongo, especially when it's such a big part of his success, but it has paid huge dividends for him and the Panthers.

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