SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - "Mon-tem-beault! Mont-tem-beault! Mon-tem-beault!"
That was the cheer raining down upon Samuel Montembeault throughout Monday night's AHL All-Star Classic, as the young goaltender and star of the host Springfield Thunderbirds kept the capacity crowd of 6,793 at MassMutual Center on its feet with one big save after another.
"It was really fun," Montembeault said of the event. "The crowd has always been behind us."
The heir apparent in net for the Florida Panthers ever since the organization made him the 77th overall selection in the 2015 NHL Draft, the expectation has long been that Montembeault's abilities will eventually lead to him playing in front of a much larger audience down the road.
And although there's obviously no set date for his impending NHL debut, Panthers assistant general manager and Thunderbirds general manager Eric Joyce believes he's on the right path.
"So many different things factor into the evaluation of a goaltender," said Joyce, citing areas like preparation, execution, team defense and systems. "It's hard to predict when a guy's going to be ready, but at some point we're going to have to give him a chance to see what it's all about."
In the midst of his second season with Springfield, Montembeault was only recently handed the team's starting goaltender mantle after veteran Michael Hutchinson was traded Toronto on Dec. 30. Not unfamiliar to the workload, the 22-year-old got a taste of that spotlight earlier in the year when Hutchinson was recalled by the Panthers in October after an injury to Roberto Luongo.
Over his first five starts of the season, Montembeault owned a 5-0-0 record and one shutout.
"Coming into the camp when we had Hutchinson at the beginning of the season, I knew what my role was," Montembeault said. "I wasn't supposed to play that much. But with Lu's injury I had a chance to play a lot more here and did well.
"After they traded [Hutchinson], I became the first goalie here. I'll be the first call-up if there's ever an injury or if they need me. It's a lot more responsibility, but I like it. Last year was more of an adjustment year, but this year has been a lot better."
A big reason for that improvement has been the work of the organization's goaltending coaches.
Under the watchful eye and tutelage Robb Tallas in Florida and Leo Luongo in Springfield, the changes Montembeault has made to his game have certainly not gone unnoticed. From the way he plays on the ice to how he trains off of it, Joyce said he's "learned how to prepare like a pro."
"His attitude's been great," Joyce said. "It started in development camp and worked its way all the way through summer and into the season. He not only expects to play, but now he expects to make all the saves he needs to make and even some he probably shouldn't make. Those are the signs of a kid who's progressing nicely and who has a shot to play in the NHL a long time."
A native of Quebec, Montembeault said he grew up idolizing Roberto Luongo and has spent the majority of his first few training camps with the Panthers trying to get close enough to the future Hall of Famer to soak in as much knowledge as possible. And although he hasn't been able to pry too many trade secrets away, he hopes to eventually have a little bit of Luongo in his game.
"Since I got drafted, every year they put us together during training camp so I can always watch him on and off the ice," said Montembeault said of his relationship with Luongo. "He's been around for a long time. His positioning is really good. His reading is really good. I'm just trying to take something out of that and put it in my game."
The good thing for Montembeault is that he has plenty of time to work out of all of the kinks and get everything to where he wants it to be. The Panthers have said in the past that they have no plans of rushing the young netminder, especially since he's only appeared in 72 AHL games.
Given his recent all-star nod, the Panthers expect Montembeault to be even more motivated.
"Lots of great players in the NHL have been great players and all-stars in the AHL," Joyce said. "I think it validates the hard work and effort he put in over the summer to get to this spot. I think it motivates him to go back at the end of this year and do it all over again and potentially even work harder. It's a great thing for him and a great thing for our franchise. We're proud of him."
Entering the second half of the season, Montembeault currently owns a 13-10-2 record behind career-high marks in both goals-against average (3.06) and save percentage (.902). And even though he's focused on the task at hand in the AHL, he likely can't help but occasionally play the "what if" game while fantasizing about the possibility of starting an NHL game in the future.
"Growing up, it's everyone's dream," Montembeault said. "To be this close is always fun."