Sam Montembeault couldn't have asked for a better mentor during his first tour of the NHL.
Earning a late-season call-up following an injury to backup goaltender James Reimer, the 22-year-old rookie likely had to pinch himself after arriving to the Florida Panthers. In the stall next to him was his childhood idol and one of the NHL's all-time great goaltenders, Roberto Luongo.
"Every time I come here and see him in the locker room, it's always special," Montembeault said of close proximity to Luongo, a fellow Quebec native whose posters adorned his walls growing up. "He's a future Hall of Famer. He's also really great goalie, so I can always learn from him."
For more than a month following his initial recall from the AHL on Feb. 27, Montembeault not only shared part of the locker room with Luongo, but also a piece of the crease. Over the club's final 20 games of 2018-19, Montembeault started 10 contests, while Luongo got the nod in nine.
After turning aside 26 shots in 4-3 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in his NHL debut on March 2, Montembeault was simply outstanding his next time out, making 25 saves on 27 shots to help guide the Panthers to a 6-2 win over the Minnesota Wild and garner his first NHL victory.
Making a perfect night even better, it was Luongo, who had been named the team's MVP in their previous win, that presented Montembeault with the team's player of the game award during the post-game celebration, handing off the rugby ball to his pupil and giving him a hug.
As is tradition, Montembeault then gave the ball a good spike, sending the room into a frenzy.
"It means a lot," Montembeault said of Luongo's gesture. "He's a future Hall of Famer. He's one of the best goalies of all time, so it means a lot to get it from him."
A veteran of 19 seasons in the NHL, Luongo said he enjoyed taking on the mantle of mentor.
"It was something different for me," he said. "I did a little bit with Schneids [Cory Schneider] when he came up with Vancouver, but I was lot younger back then. Now that I'm in the later stages in my career and I see a young kid come up like that, having his first go around in the NHL, playing some games. It was fun for me to try to help him out as best I ca and bring me back to my days when I started out. I remember how those things were: excitement, but also nerve-wracking. You want to make a good impression. It was fun for me to try to help him out."
In the wake of his first NHL win over the Wild, Montembeault went on to win each of his next three games, becoming just the eighth goaltender in the last 35 years to begin his NHL career without a loss in each of his first five appearances, according to NHL Public Relations. In that span, he posted a 4-0-1 record while stopping a 116 of 128 shots for a .906 save percentage.
As with most rookies, however, highs are often followed with lows.
Over his final six appearances, Montembeault went 0-3-1 behind a .883 save percentage. With that being said, he still managed to finish his inaugural NHL campaign on a high note, stopping 35 of 36 shots during his final appearance, a 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Islanders on April 4.
In the end, the 2015 third-round pick ended the year with a 4-3-2 record, 3.04 goals-against average and .894 save percentage. There were flashes of brilliance, but also the expected ebbs and flows.
Heading into next season, Montembeault believes he still has a lot to learn.
"It's obviously good for my confidence," said Montembeault, who was named to the 2019 AHL All-Star Classic prior to his recall. "It's important for me to have a good summer on and off the ice and come back to training camp and be ready if there is a spot for me and if there's an opportunity for me to take it."
Montembeault managed a save percentage above .917 in five of his 10 starts, a sign that the ability is there, even as the young goaltender still has room to grow into a more consistently formidable puck stopper.
Despite the outcome, Montembeault's season likely couldn't have ended much better. In his final start of the season, he posted his best performance to date, making a career-high 35 saves in a hard-fought 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Islanders at BB&T Center on April 4.
Video: FLA Recap: Montembeault posts 35 saves in 2-1 SO loss
"He was unbelievable," Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau said. "[The Islanders] are a good team. They're in the playoffs and work really hard. They had a lot of chances, but Monty, in overtime too, shut the door. He's going to be a really good goalie and we're glad to have him."
With the secondary assist on Huberdeau's goal in the third period, Montembeault also tallied his first NHL point.
"I just stopped the puck and made sure it was flat for Yands [Keith Yandle] when he came and picked it up," Montembeault said of the play. "He made an amazing pass to Huby, and a great finish by him, too… It was a point night for me."
SAVE OF THE YEAR
This save felt a little Superman-esque.
With the Panthers down 1-0 late in the first period of their matchup against the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on March 17, Montembeault gave the team a noticeable boost heading into the first intermission after sprawling out to make an incredibly athletic stop worthy of multiple looks.
Knocked almost fully out of the crease after Ducks forward Rickard Rakell crashed into the net, Montembeault somehow managed to dive back into the blue paint just in time to get a piece of his glove on a blistering slap shot from defenseman Jacob Larsson to keep the deficit at one.
Video: FLA@ANA: Montembeault lays out to deny Larsson