For the first time in franchise history, the Panthers will have four representatives at the NHL All-Star Game.
On Wednesday, goalie Roberto Luongo and defenseman Aaron Ekblad were added to the Atlantic Division team which will take part in a reformatted All-Star tournament.
Jaromir Jagr had previously been voted onto the team as captain of the Atlantic team. Florida's 5-1 victory in Buffalo on Tuesday clinched a spot for coach Gerard Gallant as well.
The Panthers are the hottest team in hockey with the 10-game winning streak longest in the NHL this season. Florida has also won 16 of its past 19 games.
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“It should be a lot of fun, and it’s an honor showing how well we’ve been playing,” Gallant said. “I think it’s great. The team is playing really well. We have 52 points and we’re not to the halfway point. We just want to keep it going.”
All-Star Weekend will be held Jan. 28-31 in Nashville, with the centerpiece being the new All-Star tournament.
There will be four teams split up by the four NHL divisions.
The teams will play one 3-on-3 period (Atlantic vs. Metropolitan; Pacific vs. Central) with the winners facing off in a third championship period.
The winning players will split a $1 million prize pool.
With the new 3-on-3 format and four teams at the All-Star Game, rosters are limited to six forwards, three defensemen and two goalies per team.
“It’s always an honor to be named to something like that,” said Luongo, 36. “You have to take it for what it is. You don’t go expecting to play a defensive system. You go to enjoy the weekend.
“You know you’re going to get lit up but you have to have fun, hang out, talk to the guys and do stuff with your family. It’s a whole event you have to take in. I think I enjoy it more now that I’m older and don’t know how many years I have left. Now I have little kids of my own to enjoy it with me.”
Jagr, 43, has expressed some reservations about going to his 13th All-Star Game — and first since 2004 — saying on Sunday he would rather spend the time in Florida or the Bahamas.
Yet it appears Jagr will go to the game along with his teammates.
Jagr’s biggest concern seems to be the format and the extended playing time each player will have on wide-open ice.
“I need to get into shape,” Jagr said. “Everyone else gets to rest; I have to play 3-on-3. Great. Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.”
For Luongo, this will be his sixth All-Star appearance and third as a member of the Panthers, tying him with John Vanbiesbrouck (1994, 1996-97) for the most in franchise history.
This is Ekblad’s second consecutive All-Star appearance, tying him for third with Pavel Bure, Viktor Kozlov and Jay Bouwmeester.
Ekblad is in his second year after being the top pick of the 2014 NHL Draft and winning the Calder Memorial Trophy for rookie of the year.
Last year, Ekblad went to be part of the skills competition and ended up taking part in the game as an injury replacement.
“I’m a young guy and don’t think I have anything crazy to offer, but they saw something and put me there,” Ekblad said before Florida’s practice in Ottawa on Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s a great opportunity and it’s pretty awesome to see us get some recognition for the way we’re playing. Last year I was a rookie and wasn’t supposed to be playing in the game. I’m going with a little different outlook this time.”
Gallant downplayed his coaching selection and instead praised his team, which went into Wednesday leading the Atlantic Division by five points over Montreal.
The Panthers were five points out of a playoff position on Thanksgiving and 16 points behind the Canadiens for first place, yet have rattled off 16 wins in 19 games and are riding a franchise-record, 10-game winning streak coming into Thursday’s game at Ottawa.
“We can’t worry about what we’ve done in the past,” Gallant said. “We’re going to have to play real well in Ottawa. We just have to keep going, moving forward. We want some more points.”
When the All-Star teams were announced, former Florida coach Doug MacLean was on his daily radio/TV show on Canada’s Sportsnet and joked about his old friend Gallant.
MacLean, the only other Florida coach to be behind the bench for an All-Star Game, has known Gallant since he was 10 and was Gallant’s high school teacher and coach in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.
“That’s great, but if he can do it two years in a row that would be something,” MacLean, a two-time All-Star Game coach, said on the air. “Maybe he’ll get me a T-shirt.”
The two worked together when MacLean ran the Columbus Blue Jackets — Gallant’s first head coaching job — and MacLean said he was extremely proud of the job Gallant has done with his former team.
“I told people when he went to Florida he’s not only a great coach, but you will have to go a long way to meet a better man than Gerard Gallant,” MacLean said off the air.
“This is great for him and the Panthers.”
▪ Ekblad said the Panthers aren’t looking too closely at the standings but realize they are starting to get a little separation from the pack in their division.
Florida, five points out of a playoff spot just a few weeks ago, is now eight points ahead of Boston, which holds the final wild-card spot in the conference.
“You would hope you would pull away at some point, but you don’t focus on it too much,” Ekblad said. “Obviously what we’re doing is important right now. I don’t think there’s a guy on our team upset [about] where we are right now. We’re in a good spot.”
Thursday: Panthers at Senators
When, where: 7:30 p.m.; Canadian Tire Center, Ottawa.
TV, radio: FSFL; WQAM (560(, WMEN (640).
Series: Ottawa leads 47-31-3.
Scouting report: The is the third of five meetings between Florida and Ottawa, with the Senators taking the opener 4-2 and Florida winning 2-1 in a shootout prior to Christmas. Former Florida goalie Craig Anderson played a terrific game in that loss, stopping 39 shots before Brandon Pirri and Sasha Barkov beat him in the shootout.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ALL-STAR GAME HISTORY
2016 (Jan. 28-31, Nashville): Coach: Gerard Gallant; Jaromir Jagr, Aaron Ekblad, Roberto Luongo
2015: Ekblad, Luongo
2012: Brian Campbell
2008: Tomas Vokoun
2007: Jay Bouwmeester
2003 (Sunrise): Olli Jokinen, Sandis Ozolinsh (traded to Anaheim prior to game)
2001: Pavel Bure
2000: Bure (MVP), Viktor Kozlov, Ray Whitney
1997: Coach: Doug MacLean; Robert Svehla, John Vanbiesbrouck
1996: Coach: MacLean; Vanbiesbrouck
1994: Bob Kudelski, Vanbiesbrouck