TORONTO — His 39-year-old right knee wrapped in gauze for support, Roberto Luongo insists it’s all still worth it.
The aches and pains, the amount of preparation needed just to step on the ice, and the injuries that take a lot longer to heal don’t come close to rivalling the one desire burning inside the Florida Panthers’ veteran goalie.
“I just want to be in the playoffs, man,” said Luongo, grey hair dotting his beard. “I just want to get a taste of that. That’s why I play.”
In his 19th NHL season, Luongo sits six wins shy of tying Ed Belfour for third all-time at 484, is 12 appearances away from equalling Patrick Roy for second in games played at 1,029 and needs four shutouts to pull even with Dominik Hasek and two others for sixth with 81.
But those numbers and his slam-dunk spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame don’t matter to the Montreal native.
He wants another shot at the Stanley Cup, a trophy Luongo came so close to touching with the Vancouver Canucks in 2011.
“The rest of that stuff will come on its own,” he said inside the visitors locker room at Scotiabank Arena earlier this week. “At the end of my career you can look back on those numbers and appreciate them, but for now I just want to keep doing a good job.”
He’s done his part for the Panthers this season, but it’s unlikely there will be spring hockey in south Florida.
Luongo, who was left hung out to dry by teammates in Thursday’s 6-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, is 7-6-1 with one shutout, a .900 save percentage and a 3.14 goals-against average in 2018-19 after missing the first month of the season with a strained medial collateral ligament in his right knee suffered in Florida’s opener.
The Panthers struggled without Luongo and, despite back-to-back wins before the blowout in Toronto, sit nine points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Still, he continues to push his body.
“It’s tough. I’m not going to lie. It’s not easy,” Luongo said. “There’s a lot of stuff you have to deal with. When you get up there (in age), recovery is not as fast and you have to put a lot of work in.
“Right now I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep going.”
Panthers head coach Bob Boughner said Luongo “is his own boss” when it comes to the goalie’s workload.
“It’s crucial for us he stays healthy,” said Boughner, whose team missed the playoffs by a point last season. “He’s our most important player.”
Luongo signed a 12-year, US$64-million contract with Vancouver that kicked in ahead of the 2010-11 campaign — a front-loaded deal that carries an annual average value of $5.333 million.
After earning $10 million the first season, he made $6.716 million for seven consecutive years. But Luongo’s salary in real dollars dropped by more than half to $3.382 million this season and falls to $1.618 million in 2019-20.
That number dips even further to $1 million in both 2020-21 and 2021-22, should he continue playing well into his 40s.
Luongo insists when he inked his extension with the Canucks, who traded him back to Florida in 2014 after originally acquiring him from the Panthers in 2006, his intention was to play as long as he could, regardless of the money.
“I never said I was going to retire at a certain age,” Luongo explained. “I just wanted to keep playing as long as I enjoyed it (and) was able to play at a high level and be as healthy as I can be.
“Right now other than the injuries a little bit, I still feel that I can play at a high level.”
The fourth pick in the 1997 draft by the New York Islanders has a career goals-against average of 2.51 to go along with a save percentage of .919, which he’s bettered in four of his five seasons since returning to Florida.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, who had Luongo at a number of international tournaments, said the netminder’s approach is key.
“His care-free personality, his love of the game, the kind of guy he is … not a lot of stress there,” Babcock said. “He just comes out and plays and he’s smart.
“As long as he can keep reading the play, looks to me like he’s doing a good job.”
That care-free side continues to come through Twitter, where Luongo will playfully needle teammates and opponents. Before the game in Toronto, he suggested Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner get the night off after their cameo in “The Nutcracker.”
After such a big night should probably consider giving them the night off tomorrow no? https://t.co/d1xksgYVIp
— Strombone (@strombone1) December 20, 2018
“When I’m loose and having fun I tend to be in a better space and play better,” said Luongo, who has participated in just six post-season games since 2013. “We are playing a game and we’re privileged to be doing so.”
And all he wants is the privilege of another shot at the Cup, as far as off as it might seem.
“I’m loving playing,” he said. “I don’t have a set time. Hopefully I get another playoff run.”
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press