James Reimer will start in net for the Florida Panthers Sunday in a game against the Ottawa Senators which carries huge playoff implications.
That, Roberto Luongo says, is how it should be.
Luongo, the Panthers’ starting goalie since he was reacquired from the Vancouver Canucks at the tail end of the 2013-14 campaign, will be on the bench for perhaps Florida’s biggest game of the season to date and says he deserves to be.
“It has been a battle the last little while. I’m glad we have a guy like Reimer here who is able to step in and do the job,” Luongo said after Sunday’s morning skate at BB&T Center.
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“Right now I don’t deserve to be playing. That’s the bottom line. For me, everything is about the team and us winning games. James Reimer gives us a better chance to win every night than I am. Until I figure my [game] out this is the way it should go I think.”
Luongo has been struggling a bit of late while Reimer has been nothing short of terrific.
In Luongo’s eyes, what’s best for the team — right now — is to have Reimer in net while he tries to escape this recent funk.
“Obviously, things aren’t going the way I want them to be,” Luongo said. “I just have to focus on making sure that I put the work in during practice and feel good during games. That’s the only thing I can control right now.
“The other things — health or whatnot — I have to put the work in and perform in games. That’s the bottom line for me right now.”
There have been whispers Luongo may be fighting through some sort of injury and he downplayed that Sunday — while acknowledging something was going on.
Luongo fought through a hip problem at the end of last season and played through the postseason.
Once the season ended, Luongo had labrum surgery and rehabbed hard through the summer and basically shaved a month off of his recovery time.
Instead of coming back at the end of training camp or missing the start of the season as was feared, Luongo was cleared for practice from the onset and never missed a beat.
He would not say if he was having similar problems this year; Luongo did have to leave Florida’s overtime win in San Jose after cramping up throughout the night.
“I really can’t talk about that,” Luongo said, adding he wasn’t going to use physical maladies as an excuse for his recent play.
“I’ve been working hard in practice the past couple of weeks, battling for every shot. I’m feeling pretty good, felt good against L.A. but the last game [Calgary] I obviously didn’t. I just have to get back to the grind of it and I think things will turn around.”
Tom Rowe, Florida’s general manager and interim coach, signed Reimer to a five-year deal when the free agency market opened in July and raised eyebrows around the league as Luongo — a certain Hall of Famer whose No. 1 will drop from the Sunrise arena rafters — is signed through 2022.
But with Luongo getting older, the thought was bringing in Reimer would give Luongo plenty of rest heading into the playoff run.
Reimer, it was said in the summer, would play more than a typical backup goalie. If he gets hot, goalie coach Robb Tallas said, well, he’ll play.
Luongo was on board with that thinking then and says he still is today.
“I think it's important in the new NHL to have three goalies who can play,” Luongo said in August, referring to himself, Reimer and Reto Berra.
“Teams need three NHL guys because the schedule is grueling and there are a lot of games. Guys get hurt. It's important to have a third guy in case something happens and I'm not getting any younger.”
Right now, at least, Reimer has the hot hand and the Panthers are going with him for the time being.
“Reimer has been playing very well and deserved to get the start,” Rowe said. “There were some goals Luongo would like to have back from the other night so he’ll keep working on things.
“That’s the luxury of having a guy like Reimer here; we can put him in and let Luongo get reorganized and ready for the stretch run.”
▪ Florida recalled rookie center Denis Malgin from their AHL affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts, following the Thunderbirds’ game on Saturday night.
Malgin did not make it to South Florida in time for the morning skate and Rowe said he wouldn’t play Sunday against the Sens.
Sunday: Senators at Panthers
When/where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640, WMYM 990.
Series: Ottawa leads 51-37-3.
Scouting report: This is the final regular-season meeting between the teams, with Florida winning two of the first three matchups. The teams could meet in the playoffs as the Panthers try to chase down the Senators. Ottawa comes in four points ahead of Florida in the Atlantic Division.