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At 38, Luongo Better Than Ever for Playoff-Hopeful Panthers

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

There was no shortage of praise being passed around the Florida Panthers locker room during the team's perfect six-game homestand, as 18 of 21 skaters recorded at least one point to help catapult the club back into the postseason picture in the Eastern Conference.

Aleksander Barkov led the team with 10 points (5-5-10) and was named the NHL's third star of the week on Monday. Evgenii Dadonov scored five goals, including his first career NHL hat trick against Pittsburgh on Feb. 24. From the blue line, defensemen Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad chipped in five and six points, respectively.

But after Sunday's 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers briefly moved the Panthers into a playoff spot, Barkov pointed to veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo as Florida's biggest key to success.

"We scored four breakaway goals in the game - that's not going to happen every game," Barkov said. "We didn't play well this game. Lou won the game for us. He stood on his head again."

Luongo stopped 39 of 40 shots against the Flyers to secure Florida's second-ever 6-0-0 sweep at home. With the win, he improved to 6-1-0 with a 2.27 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage since returning from a groin injury that ate up more than two months of his season.

In 22 games, Luongo is 12-7-1 with a 2.50 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage.

"When Lou is in there, there's just a calming effect," Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. "He's been solid ever since he's come back. We have great faith in both of our goalies. Lou is playing some of the best hockey I've seen him play in a long time and it's helping us out big time."

At 38, Luongo isn't playing just playing well for a goaltender of his age. In fact, he's quietly been performing between the pipes better than nearly every other netminder in the NHL, with his .930 save percentage -- his best since 2003-04 -- placing him in a tie for second place in the league among goalies with at least 15 starts this season.

When asked about his ability to bounce back from injury at an advanced age, Luongo credited Florida's medical staff and the team's longtime goaltending coach, Robb Tallas, for putting in "a lot of work, a lot of hours" to make sure that he came back at 100 percent.

Still, even Luongo couldn't hide his surprise with how well things have gone.

"Even I'm a little bit shocked with how good it's been since I've been back," Luongo said after backstopping Florida to a 3-2 overtime win against Toronto on Feb. 27. "I just want to keep it going."

While teammates shower him with praise, Luongo has been deflecting compliments like pucks after recent wins, instead pushing the credit towards the Panthers' improved play on defense, most notably their improvement in limiting the odd-man rushes that once plagued the team.

"That's a key for our club," Luongo said. "We don't want to be the type of team that trade chances. We're a good team when we control the puck in the offensive zone and use our speed to our advantage. When we don't turn the puck over, it's beneficial to what we want to do."

Although injuries and age haven't limited Luongo, they have forced him to evolve.

Luongo suited up for just 40 games last season due to recurring hip issues that eventually resulted in offseason surgery. In limited time, he posted a 17-15-6 record with a 2.68 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage.

In order to prevent future complications, Luongo's warm-up routine - which lasted roughly 20-30 minutes during his prime years - now lingers anywhere between 45-60 minutes. The bulk of the added work comes in the morning before he transitions into his usual pre-game routine.

"It's not something that's enjoyable to do every single day," Luongo said in September. "Sometimes, you just want to come to the rink and put your gear on and get dressed. Unfortunately, that's the way it is. I still have a strong passion for the game and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to be in this league.

"I feel like the older I get, the longer it gets, If I play up to 45 like [Jaromir Jagr], I'll have to come in the night before to get ready for practice the next day. It just gradually feels like every year you add a little something."

It's evident when talking to his teammates that Luongo's passion resonates throughout Florida's locker room. For although the championship window is just now cracking open for so many of the team's up-and-coming stars, Luongo - despite his outstanding play - is running out of time.

With 465 victories under his belt - the fourth-most in NHL history -- Luongo's resume is already Hall of Fame-worthy. He's been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy three times and his franchise-best 206 victories with the Panthers will likely ensure that his name and number will someday hang from the rafters of BB&T Center.

But with the Panthers sitting one point behind Columbus for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with three games in hand, there's no doubt Luongo's quest for a Stanley Cup is driving the team's playoff pursuit.

"He's been phenomenal," Panthers defenseman Alex Petrovic said. "He's won us every game since he's been back. We try not to make it too hard on him that way, but when something breaks down, which is going to happen in a game, he's always there to have our backs. He's been awesome.

"If we have a bad period, we're going to hear it from Lou, which is good. I think everyone gets going from that... If we can just bear down and get these wins for Lou here, it's just another reason for us to do well and make the playoffs."

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