Masked Men: Luongo in Fine Form for Florida

For Roberto Luongo, it’s always sunny in South Florida.

Or so it would seem, with the veteran goaltender getting off to a hot start in his return to the Miami-based Panthers following a tumultuous eight-year tenure in Vancouver.

How Hot?

The 35-year-old has helped the low-scoring Panthers (4-2-3) earn points in five straight games, including four victories. That stretch started with a 26-save shutout in a 1-0 win over the lowly Buffalo Sabres (2-9-1) on Oct. 17, and Luongo kept it going by stopping 36 shots to shade the visiting Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 on Saturday night. He’s been a bright spot throughout, boasting a .961 save percentage over that span, so don’t be surprised if Luongo’s latest performance locked up one of the NHL’s three-star awards to be announced Monday morning.

Aside from one clunker against former Vancouver teammate Cory Schneider and the New Jersey Devils — who chased Luongo early in the second period after scoring five times on just 14 shots in a 5-1 blowout back on Oct. 11 — Luongo has been sensational this season. His overall save percentage of .933 ranks him seventh among league leaders, while his goals-against average of 2.15 is a respectable 13th — or 10th among goalies with six or more starts.

Can He Keep It Up?

Granted, this is still a pretty small sample size — only nine games into an 82-game campaign — but Luongo appears to be thriving in Florida again and regaining his all-star form from years past. Remember, this guy was nominated for the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2007 and is a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist as top goaltender, most recently in 2011. He was a runner-up every time and has never hoisted a Stanley Cup, but he did backstop Canada to Olympic gold in 2010 during happier times in Vancouver.

Luongo looks to have his swagger back and is no doubt playing with a chip on his shoulder this season. He wants to prove he’s not washed up, nor past his prime despite twice being supplanted as the Canucks’ starter in recent years — first by Schneider and then by Eddie Lack last season.

Welcome Change of Scenery

There were dreary days with the Canucks — in a much rainier climate — as Luongo endured a hot-and-cold chapter of his career in Vancouver.

It culminated with a controversial decision by coach John Tortorella to start Lack, a rookie, over Luongo in the Heritage Classic outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens this past March. That move infuriated Luongo, a Montreal native, while setting off a media firestorm and ultimately prompting his trade back to the Panthers just two days later.

This, of course, was not an expedited process as Luongo had long, LONG been asking for a trade out of Vancouver and ideally back to Florida where his wife and kids had remained all along. It’s funny, how things have a way of working themselves out.

Luongo finally got his wish, escaping the fish bowl of a Canadian market after a few close calls, countless twists and turns, and constant media-driven drama. To his credit, Luongo handled the whole ordeal with class and humour, often making light of the situation on social media as his Twitter persona Strombone took on a life of its own.

Luongo did his best to stay professional and not sulk or pout, but his growing frustration was evident over being stuck in a place he clearly didn’t want to be. Who could forget his now infamous ‘My contract sucks’ quote as the 2013 trade deadline came and went without a change in address? This, coming from somebody who was only in the third season of a 12-year pact worth more than $60 million.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIKynOvCePs

That press conference was painful to watch, and you had to feel for Luongo even if his annual salary had a couple extra zeros. Had that gongshow gone on any longer, he might have seriously considered ripping up his contract or retiring. Fortunately for all parties, it didn’t come to that.

In His Happy Place

Flashing back to the present, Luongo is in much better spirits. Reunited with his family, he’s relishing the No. 1 role ahead of capable backup Al Montoya, and enjoying the relative obscurity of playing in Florida. He can wake up in the morning without seeing his face plastered on the front pages of the daily newspaper. He can show up for practice without facing a throng of reporters each and every day, most of the time posing the same old questions. He can, by and large, go about his business without too many people taking notice.

The Panthers are averaging less than 10,000 fans per home game this season — by far the fewest in the league — and reached a record low when only 7,311 watched Luongo block 22 of 23 shots in a 1-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 13. Florida’s arena, the BB&T Center, has a capacity of 19,250 for hockey but has topped out at 11,419 to date this season — and that “big” crowd was for the Panthers’ home opener, which resulted in the aforementioned rout by the visiting Devils.

Win and They Will Come?

Hockey hasn’t always been a tough sell in Sunrise. The Panthers actually averaged 18,493 fans during the 1998-99 season, and their rink used to offer a fun atmosphere back when it was raining rats during John Vanbiesbrouck’s days between the pipes.

That Cinderalla run to the 1996 Stanley Cup final was captivating to say the least, right up until Uwe Krupp’s overtime winner cancelled the parade and completed the series sweep for the Colorado Avalanche. The Panthers have only been back to the playoffs three times since then, and have missed the post-season in 12 of the last 13 years, making a token appearance in a first-round loss in 2011-12.

Still, it’s sad to see attendance woes — and the franchise’s overall instability — getting more attention than the on-ice product, which is showing early signs of improvement over last season, thanks in large part to Luongo.

If the Panthers can sustain their current momentum, and especially if they can string together some home victories with six more games at BB&T Center in the month of November, it would go a long way towards sparking local interest and filling the seats again. If not, this organization could be taken off life support sooner than later with relocation rumours already swirling.

Leading Resurgence

Luongo obviously doesn’t want to go anywhere, so he’ll continue to do everything in his power to provide stability in the crease. So far, so good, as he has the Panthers playing near-.500 hockey under new coach Gerard Gallant and tied with the Minnesota Wild for the league’s fewest goals against (18), albeit in one fewer game.

If Luongo can keep shining and the Panthers find a way to get their offence going — having scored the second-fewest goals (14), one more than Buffalo in three fewer games — then things could really be looking up in Florida.

Those are some substantial “ifs” at this point, but Luongo has long possessed the pedigree of an elite goaltender, having been drafted fourth overall by the New York Islanders in 1997. After appearing in just 24 games for that franchise, he was traded to the Panthers and thrust into the spotlight as the team’s starter from Day 1.

What a story it would be to see Luongo lead Florida back to the playoffs and potentially bookend his career by capturing a Stanley Cup with the Panthers. Imagine that . . . or imagine him doing the same in a homecoming of sorts should the Panthers pack up shop and move to Quebec City.

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.