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Panthers Rookie Goalie Sam Montembeault Already Making Waves

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - For goaltender Sam Montembeault, the moment was beyond even his wildest dreams.

Barely out of his sweat-soaked jersey and with his pads still firmly strapped to his legs, the 22-year-old rookie sat and listened as his childhood idol, Roberto Luongo, went around the locker room dolling out praise after the Florida Panthers' big 6-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on Friday night at BB&T Center.

With a rugby ball in his hand - an item given to the team's unofficial player of the game after each win dating back to last season - the 39-year-old veteran started to single out that night's top contributors, such as defensemen Mike Matheson and MacKenzie Weegar, who had each scored a pair of goals.

"Matty, two goals."

"Weegs, two goals. I'd give it to you, but I don't want you to get a panic attack."

Then, without hesitation, Luongo looked toward Montembeault, fresh off the first NHL win of his career.

"I'm going to have to give it to my boy Monty!" he shouted, following his quick handoff with a hug.

As is tradition, Montembeault then forcefully spiked the ball, sending the room into a frenzy.

"It means a lot," Montembeault told reporters after the game when asked about that special moment. "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."

Years from now, that simple sequence may also be looked at as a symbolic passing of the torch.

Long pegged as Luongo's successor in net, Montembeault, a third-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, has been exceptional since being recalled from the AHL on Feb. 27 to fill in for injured backup James Reimer.

After making 26 saves in 4-3 overtime loss to Carolina in his NHL debut on March 2, Montembeault was outstanding in his next start, stopping 25 of 27 shots to lead the Panthers past in the Wild. Already a fan favorite, the second-year pro was treated to "Monty! Monty! Monty!" chants throughout the contest.

Video: MIN@FLA: Montembeault slides across to rob Aberg

"I heard that," said Montembeault, flashing a big smile. "It was fun to see the fans already behind me."

When asked about the biggest differences between his first and second start, Montembeault admitted that although he was still feeling understandably anxious out there, he's started to get better at battling through those butterflies - something that will continue to improve as he gets more comfortable in net.

"Last week, I was really nervous before the game and I even told Brownie [Josh Brown] after the first period, 'That was probably the longest first period of my life,'" he said. "I was feeling a lot better today. I knew what to expect… I just got in and I tried to play my game and it ended up going very well."

Since then, things have certainly continued to go well for Montembeault.

In his third start, Montembeault wasn't tested often, but came up big when needed, stopping 19 of 20 shots to backstop the Panthers to a 6-1 win over the Red Wings. Of his 19 saves, three were considered high-danger chances, including a breakaway attempt from Andreas Athanasiou early in the first period.

Staying calm and collected, he not only denied Anthanasiou in that one-on-one battle to keep Florida's 2-0 lead intact, but also stopped the other two high-danger attempts later in the game as well. Of the 29 high-danger shots he's faced through the first three starts of his NHL career, Montembeault has turned away an impressive 25 of them, according to the advanced statistics website NaturalStatTrick.com.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner said making saves like that gave the team an early spark against Detroit.

"You could see at 1-0, even though I think the shot clock was 15-3, all three of their shots were good chances off turnovers, and he came up with some big saves," Boughner said. "That's the difference. You need that save at the right time of the game. He's providing that. The guys are rallying around him."

When asked about what he's liked most about Montembeault thus far, Boughner pointed to the young netminder's athleticism and uncanny ability to help send the action the other way by playing the puck when it ventures towards his crease. That aspect of his game has also caught the attention of the team's captain, Aleksander Barkov, who noted after the Minnesota game that "not every goalie can do that."

"I think there was a big difference between the first and second game he played," Boughner said. "You could tell he was having some fun back there. He's more confident. I love the way he moves the puck. We talk about goaltenders saving shots, obviously, but he's doing a great job getting back there and helping our defense on the breakouts, making outlet passes and stopping the rims. Those are things that you want to keep seeing."

With 13 games left to play in the season and three healthy goaltenders to choose from, Boughner said that although he plans to take a game-by-game approach in net, he will roll with Montembeault for the time being because "if he's playing well and we're winning games, there's no reason to make a change."

Sitting at 2-0-1 on the season, Montembeault owns a .936 save percentage over his last two starts.

"We're confident, obviously, in him being a goalie here for the future," Boughner said. "Is he ready for the full-time thing? I think this next month or so will help us determine that. He's got a big summer ahead of him and a big training camp next year. He's definitely one of our top prospects."

In the meantime, Montembeault plans to keep doing his best and leaning on Luongo for advice.

"Every time I come here and see him in the locker room, it's always special," Montembeault said of Luongo, whose posters adorned his walls growing up. "He's a future Hall of Famer. He's a great goalie, so I can always learn from him."

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