It’s becoming routine.
Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo — out the past three games with a shoulder injury — works out early before practice, improves, but still needs a day or two to return to the net.
Luongo will travel with the team but won’t play Saturday night at Carolina. He hopes to make his return Sunday in New York against the Rangers.
That means at least another start for Dan Ellis, who has helped the Panthers earn five unlikely points in three games since coming to Florida’s rescue earlier this month.
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Every game is magnified this time of year, particularly with the Panthers six points behind a playoff spot with 15 games remaining.
Simply put, they can’t afford to wait around much longer for Luongo to get back.
“As a backup or as someone in my position, you don’t get to play a lot of games in March,” Ellis said.
“Usually, you have a guy who is stringing a lot games together, like [Luongo] or other goalies I’ve played with. It’s a fun time of year, and our team is dialed in.”
Ellis is benefitting from the more consistent playing time. His 39 professional appearances is his highest total since the 2010-11 season. He has redeemed himself after an ugly 0-5 stint with the Panthers last March, during which he owned a 4.81 goals-against average. He is playing well enough that he can laugh about it now.
“It didn’t work out for me [last year],” he chuckled.
“You have to put that stuff behind you. If I would have tried to connect that stuff to last year, I would have started 0-5. I can start with a clean slate. Last year, the team was in a totally different position.”
This season, Ellis went from AHL afterthought to major contributor as the Panthers continue to push for a playoff spot. He will be a part of it whether Florida makes a run or not.
“I’m glad to be here,” he said. “Glad to be able to contribute now.”
Panthers coach Gerard Gallant credits some of the recent success to the veteran presences of Ellis, 34, and recently acquired wing Jaromir Jagr, 43, who is excelling on the first line.
Jagr has particularly influenced linemates Aleksander Barkov, 19, and Jonathan Huberdeau, 21 — “the kids,” as Gallant calls them.
“They look really confident, and Jagr has had a lot to do with that,” Gallant said. “To be honest, the last two months those kids have played real well together. They’ve taken another step since Jagr got here in the trade. I think they have a chance to score every time they step on the ice.”
Increased hypermobility on the offensive end has limited the pressure on Ellis. He had to face only 20 shots in Thursday night’s victory over Winnipeg, and he stopped 18 of them.
“As coaches we tell them [to] shoot the puck,” Gallant said. “Every time they come back to the bench we tell them, ‘Shoot the puck, shoot the puck.’”
Florida sits six points behind eighth-place Boston and eight points behind Washington. The playoff race is about to become a dead sprint. And, at least for now, it’s still Ellis leading the charge.
“It’s tough to get points this time of year,” Ellis said. “Especially if you’ve been behind it’s a tough time to claw back. But we know the position we’re in.”