SUNRISE, Fla. - As the final buzzer sounded, James Reimer pumped his fist in victory.
The Florida Panthers came from behind to defeat the Arizona Coyotes in a must-win matchup at Gila River Arena on Tuesday, with Reimer stopping 39 of 41 shots to make sure his team would be heading home with a big two points. But as his teammates skated over to congratulate their goaltender on a job well done, some found themselves at a loss for words.
"It's tough to kind of say something that really describes how grateful you are when he's making the saves that he has been making," defenseman Mike Matheson said after Thursday's practice at BB&T Center. "It just gives us so much confidence knowing that he's back there and will be there to save us if we make a mistake."
Florida's defacto starter since Roberto Luongo was lost to a lower-body injury in a loss to the New York Islanders on Dec. 4, Reimer was spectacular during the team's recent five-game road trip, allowing just 11 total goals while stopping 161 of 172 shots (.936 percent) during a 2-2-1 stretch. In 12 starts before Luongo's injury, he was 4-6-2 with a 3.64 goals-against average and a .894 save percentage.
When asked if he's made any changes to his routine during his first hot stretch of the season, Reimer said that his success has been more about what he's not doing rather than what he is. With what will likely be his eighth consecutive start coming up on Friday against the Minnesota Wild, the 28-year-old has placed and added emphasis on rest -- not reinventing the goaltending wheel.
"The biggest transition is just making sure that there isn't really a transition," Reimer said. "Whether you're playing one game a week, or three or four games a week, your mentality has to be the same. You're just focused on one game. That's obviously a stupid cliché and all that garbage, but it's just a matter of making sure things stay the same."
That commitment to consistency has certainly been paying off, as Reimer's recent revival has resulted in his save percentage (.901) climbing above .900 for the first time since Oct. 28. And although he chuckled at the notion of his rising numbers, Reimer said if he keeps playing up to his ability, the statistics will eventually sort themselves out.
"Being a goalie or any athlete, your main thing is your belief in your ability," Reimer said. "Whether your stats are .980 or .840, you never want to lose that belief in yourself. You always want to be top-10 in the stats or top-5 in the stats, every goalie aspires to be like that. But sometimes that's not the case. You just approach every game with the belief that you are that goalie."
When it was initially announced that Luongo would be out of the lineup for what was described as "an extended period of time," head coach Bob Boughner said that the loss certainly took a toll on the team, as the 38-year-old veteran had won five of eight games heading into the Islanders game.
With Reimer's resurgence, however, that panic has begun to subside.
"It wasn't so much about Reims as it was just about having no Louie," Boughner said. "He was probably playing some of his best hockey of the year and we were rolling a little bit. We were getting points in games where maybe we didn't deserve points. He was standing on his head. When that happened, obviously, it was tough on the mindset of the team. But Reims came in and he's been solid for us. He's given us a chance to win every night."
Almost three weeks into his recovery, Luongo returned to the ice before Thursday's practice for the first time since the injury. He skated with goaltending coach Robb Tallas, running several drills and facing a few live shots from his knees as assistant athletic trainer Tommy Alva looked on. When asked about a potential mid-January return, Boughner said it would be "probably longer," but that the team has faith in Reimer's ability to hold down the fort.
"I think he knows the situation," Boughner said. "He wants to be that guy. Lu's not going to be back for a while. It looks like he's put it in his head that he's going to be the No. 1 until Lu gets back and he's got to help us win games, and he really has."
THURSDAY'S PRACTICE LINES
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Nick Bjugstad
Evgenii Dadonov - Vincent Trocheck - Denis Malgin
Jamie McGinn - Jared McCann - Radim Vrbata
Micheal Haley - Derek MacKenzie - Colton Sceviour/Connor Brickley