Luongo still chas­ing Stan­ley

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - SPORTS - TIM REYNOLDS

CORALSPRINGS,Fla.—Roberto Luongo has an arena named af­ter him. He has made roughly $100 mil­lion in ca­reer earn­ings, knows he is headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame one day, ranks among the sport’s all-time lead­ers in vir­tu­ally ev­ery goal­tend­ing cat­e­gory. And in a true tes­ta­ment to Luongo’s pop­u­lar­ity, the Twitter ac­count of his al­ter ego even has close to a mil­lion fol­low­ers. His legacy was se­cure long ago. He doesn’t need to play any­more.

Yet here he is, reg­u­larly ar­riv­ing at the Florida Pan­thers’ train­ing fa­cil­ity even be­fore coach Bob Bough­ner on most morn­ings, spend­ing more time get­ting ready for his daily work­out than most peo­ple do on their ac­tual work­outs, not par­tak­ing in any hob­bies dur­ing the sea­son be­cause he wants noth­ing to take away from his fo­cus, still seek­ing any tiny way to make him­self just a lit­tle bet­ter in net. His save per­cent­age, in a sea­son when he turned 39, was higher than the one when he turned 29. Or the one when he turned 19, for that mat­ter.

Luongo is still driven, pri­mar­ily for one rea­son — he’s never hoisted the Stan­ley Cup, the grail he wants most.

“He just pre­pares bet­ter than any­body I’ve ever seen at that po­si­tion and that age,” Bough­ner said. “He’s just such a pro.”

The Pan­thers will gather Thurs­day for their pre­sea­son me­dia day and some off-ice mat­ters, then open train­ing camp on Fri­day. They were one of the hottest teams in the NHL in the sec­ond half of last sea­son, and wound up miss­ing the play­offs by a point in an­other woe­be­gone chap­ter for the fran­chise that hasn’t qual­i­fied for the post-sea­son in 15 of the last 17 years and hasn’t won a play­off se­ries since 1996.

Hope springs eter­nal, Luongo be­lieves, and once again he’s ar­riv­ing for the start of the sea­son ex­pect­ing to win the fi­nal game.

“Guys are ma­tur­ing and un­der­stand­ing the game more and more ev­ery year,” Luongo said. “Hope­fully we’re ready, right off the bat.”

This sea­son presents a di­chotomy of sorts: Florida is a team that thinks its tal­ented young core — Alek­sander Barkov, Aaron Ek­blad, Vin­cent Trocheck, Mike Mathe­son and Jonathan Hu­berdeau are all 25 or less — is just get­ting started. Luongo is a goalie who is near­ing the prover­bial fin­ish. Yet even with James Reimer on the ros­ter, and Reimer will play plenty, Luongo is the goalie they will rely upon from the out­set on open­ing night.

“I just love the game,” Luongo said. “I feel that I en­joy it more now than when I was a lit­tle bit younger. I’m more ma­ture, un­der­stand things a lit­tle bit bet­ter, more fo­cused on en­joy­ing my time and not so much fo­cused on other things that maybe aren’t un­der my con­trol, which I used to do ear­lier on in my ca­reer that I kind of re­gret now.”

He didn’t use the word Van­cou­ver, be­cause it was ob­vi­ous. Af­ter his first stint in Florida ended in 2006 Luongo spent eight years with the Canucks, lost a Game 7 of the Stan­ley Cup fi­nal with them — in Van­cou­ver, no less — and even­tu­ally wound up get­ting traded back to the Pan­thers. He was mis­er­able to­ward the end of his time in Van­cou­ver, lost his start­ing job and the $64-mil­lion, 12-year con­tract he signed in 2009 was an easy tar­get for crit­ics. In Florida, he’s happy. “It took some bad things to hap­pen for me to learn, but usu­ally that’s how things work,” Luongo said. “You get back up, you learn from it and you get stronger. Feels like a re­ally long time ago, but those were also some of the best years of my ca­reer. Ev­ery­thing hap­pens for a rea­son. You learn and you move on.”

Luongo comes into this sea­son with 471 wins, fourth-most in his­tory, 13 away from match­ing No. 3 Ed Belfour. He has 27,326 saves — 1,602 away from match­ing Martin Brodeur for the most in NHL his­tory. Back home in Canada, he has an arena where he used to play that now bears his name, just like Brodeur does. He’s also quick to point out that he’s among the NHL ca­reer loss lead­ers, with 376, 21 shy of ty­ing Brodeur for the league record.

“Take that, Marty,” Luongo shouted.

That’s the self-dep­re­cat­ing hu­mour that he’s needed to de­velop, and is of­ten in full dis­play on his Twitter ac­count @Strom­bone.

On there, he has asked the Stan­ley Cup who it was. He has called him­self a di­nosaur. When the Chicago Cubs won the World Se­ries and gave a ring to Steve Bart­man — who achieved in­famy in the 2003 play­offs by snar­ing a foul ball against the Florida Mar­lins — Luongo pointed out that he even trails Bart­man in that cat­e­gory now.

“I just want to keep it light,” Luongo said. “Kind of a way for me to be my­self.”

Light off the ice, all busi­ness on the ice.

He was healthy this off-sea­son, a change from the last cou­ple years, and that al­lowed him to spend much more time hon­ing and much less time re­hab­bing. He took about a week or two off af­ter last sea­son, forced him­self to watch some of the Stan­ley Cup play­offs, and be­lieves he’s ready for the grind that awaits.

The Cup is out there. And he’s run­ning out of time to get his fin­ger­prints on the chal­ice.

“Lu’s done ev­ery­thing but win the Cup,” Bough­ner said. “He knows this is a big year for this team. And Lu, when he’s at the top of his game, he’s still a top-10 goalie in this league.”


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