CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - The Florida Panthers returned from their league-mandated bye week to some good news regarding injured starting goaltender Roberto Luongo, who has been out of the lineup since suffering a lower-body injury against the New York Islanders on Dec. 4.
Still on track to return sometime in early February, Panthers coach Bob Boughner said after Thursday's practice at the Panthers IceDen that Luongo, who has been skating since Dec. 21, could be rejoining the team during an upcoming practice.
"I think he's turned a corner a little bit," Boughner said. "He's showing some good improvement here in the last few days. We're excited to hopefully get him back out on the ice during a practice at some upcoming point."
At 38 years old, Luongo was playing some of the best hockey of his career prior to the injury, posting a 6-6-1 record with a 2.61 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage - his best save percentage since his 2010-11 season in Vancouver.
Boughner said he'll have a better idea of where Luongo is at in his recovery after a few practices.
"I think we've got to judge that after the first few practices and see how he feels," he said.
With Luongo still on the mend, backup goaltender James Reimer will make his 17th consecutive start in net when the Panthers host the Las Vegas Golden Knights on Friday night at BB&T Center. The 29-year-old is 8-6-2 with a 2.56 goals-against average and .924 save percentage since stepping into the starting role and should have benefited from a week of rest after shouldering a heavy burden for over a month.
"Reims needed it," Boughner said of the break. "I was happy with the way he looked today."
With back-to-back games out of the break, Boughner said that Harri Sateri could make his first start of the season in Nashville on Saturday, but noted that the team would "play it by ear" and wait to see how Friday's events played out. In Florida's last three sets of back-to-backs, Reimer started both contests.
"Harri's looked good in practice," Boughner said. "Since he's even been here, you can tell he's improved. We've got total confidence in him. Like I said, he might be the starter there in Nashville on Saturday night. Whatever goalie's in, we've just got to play well in front of him, and we ask them to give us a chance."
Sateri, who has served as Reimer's backup since Luongo went down, made is NHL debut in relief during Florida's 5-1 loss to Minnesota on Jan. 2. The 28-year-old looked good while stopping 13 of 14 shots in 23:07, including ending the game with a flawless third period.
"It was awesome," Sateri said. "Obviously we lost the game, but I felt great after. It was my first minutes in the NHL. Like you said, no goals in the third period. It was a huge thing for my confidence."
If called upon again, Sateri said he's definitely up to the challenge.
"I'm ready to go," he said. "I've been practicing quite a bit now. I think I'm more ready."
VRBATA MOVED UP
There were several lineup changes during Thursday's practice, with the most notable being forward Radim Vrbata being reinserted onto the second line alongside Vincent Trocheck and Connor Brickley.
Vrbata, 36, began the season as the team's second-line right wing, but failed to hold onto that spot due to both inconsistent play and injuries. After scoring 20 goals with Arizona in 2016-17, Vrbata has tallied just five goals and 13 points in 32 games this season.
After missing five games with an illness, Vrbata scored in his return to the lineup in St. Louis on Jan. 9.
"I thought he looked good his first game back in St. Louis," Boughner said. "Troch's line was just OK last game. I'm just trying to find an offensive spark for that line and get some more scoring. Vrby's definitely that guy. He's a finisher, and given the opportunity hopefully he can help us there."
THURSDAY'S PRACTICE LINES
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Evgenii Dadonov
Connor Brickley - Vincent Trocheck - Radim Vrbata
Jamie McGinn - Jared McCann - Nick Bjugstad
Micheal Haley - Derek MacKenzie - Colton Sceviour/Denis Malgin