Just before the start of Tuesday night’s game at the New York Islanders, Panthers goalie coach Robb Tallas had a prophetic moment.
“I won my first NHL game against the Islanders,” Tallas told Panthers rookie goalie Harri Sateri. “Now it’s time you do the same.”
That’s exactly what happened. Sateri made 32 saves in a 4-1 win over the Islanders, which came a full decade after he was drafted in the fourth round by the San Jose Sharks.
Tuesday’s victory was a dream scenario for Sateri, who has battled his way through Russia’s Kontinental League and Finland’s Liiga as well as the American Hockey League.
But for Tallas, a 44-year-old native of Edmonton who has been with the Panthers since August 2009, Tuesday’s win was, in a sense, just another day at the office. He has prepared five goalies for NHL action this season, which is a personal record for Tallas.
The list includes future Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo and “1A starter” James Reimer, who are both out with right-leg injuries and are expected to return to practice next week.
Tallas also worked with Antti Niemi, who played two games for the Panthers this season before being released on Nov. 13, and the goalie coach is now preparing 21-year-old rookie Samuel Montembeault, who has yet to make his NHL debut.
Credit Panthers coach Bob Boughner and Tallas, among others, for keeping the team competitive — including Thursday’s 3-2 road win over the Buffalo Sabres with Sateri again in goal — despite key injuries at the sport’s most important position.
Tallas, though, deflects any attention.
“I try not to make it about me,” he said. “It’s about them, and it doesn’t matter if it’s [the goalie’s] first win or No. 500. I want to make sure he’s prepared to give his best performance.”
So how does he do that?
Here are questions and answers with Robb Tallas:
▪ What corrections did you make in Sateri’s game to help him get that first win?
“We wanted to make sure he was aggressive. He has excellent quickness, and we want him to use that to his advantage and not play small or play deep in his net. It can get chaotic in front of the net, which can push you [too deep if you’re not careful].
“Players in this league go hard to the net. When a goalie gets a little nervous, it’s easy to retreat back in your net. But when goalies are confident, they are at the top of the crease, challenging shooters.”
▪ Sateri was called up Dec. 6 right after Luongo got hurt, and then he made his NHL debut on Jan. 2. What is it like working with Sateri?
“When you get called up from minors, you have to adjust. The pace is faster, the shooters are more accurate, and the offenses are more organized.
“Harri had been up here for about a month. But after a while, when you only practice and don’t get in games, corrections are hard to find. Once you get in a game, instincts take over, and then you can make more corrections in practice.
“Ever since he started playing regularly, he’s gotten better and better.”
▪ You were undrafted yet went on to play 99 games as an NHL goalie, compiling a 28-42-10 record with a 2.91 GAA and an .891 save percentage in parts of six seasons with the Bruins and Blackhawks. What do you remember about your first NHL win, which occurred March 7, 1996, at Boston’s FleetCenter?
“It’s hard to remember. There was so much emotion for me. I was called up because there was an injury to Bill Ranford, and I drove from Providence to Boston. Normally, that drive would take an hour. But there was a (snowstorm). It took me four hours, and I drove straight to the rink.”
(Tallas made 26 saves in a 4-3 Bruins win over the Islanders that was made possible by Todd Elik’s tie-breaking goal with 69 seconds left in the game.)
▪ It’s expected that Montembeault will have his first NHL win some day soon. What have you seen from him in practice?
“He has tons of talent. Now he has to mature and learn the process of preparing for a game at this level.”
▪ If need be, is he ready to play in the NHL?
“I would certainly hope so, but I don’t want to rush him. He’s only 21. He’s only played 30 AHL games. He has the size and strength to maybe play a couple of games and get away with it, but — long-term — we want to see him play a lot more games in the AHL.”
▪ How long does it take for a goalie to mature?
“Generally, goalies need to spend a couple of years in the AHL. I would love to see him play 150 games down there.
“Young goalies tend to react first. But you have to find your positioning, and you have to read the play. Your reaction is actually the third part of making a save.”
▪ There was a stretch in this Panthers season when Luongo was hurt and Reimer started 19 out of 20 games. How valuable was Reimer to the team?
“He did a fantastic job. I think at the start of the season, he wished he would’ve played better. But it’s difficult when you’re not playing regularly. Every game feels like your first one.
“But when [Luongo] went down [Dec. 4], ‘Rimes’ really took over and had an amazing month of December. He really proved to himself that he’s capable of being a No. 1 goalie on a regular basis.”
▪ You were born in Edmonton but raised in the Vancouver area. You were 11 years old when the Edmonton Oilers won their first Stanley Cup and started their dynasty with Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. Were you an Oilers fan?
“Absolutely — my idol was [Oilers goalie] Grant Fuhr. My first jersey was when I was 4 years old. It was an Oilers jersey, and it had my name on the back and the number 4.”
▪ On March 3, 2013, and again on March 3, 2015, you suited up in case you were needed to play goalie on an emergency basis for the Panthers. What were those experiences like?
“The first one was more humorous. Jacob Markstrom’s gear hadn’t arrived yet so I was sitting on the bench for 16 minutes in case Scott Clemmensen got hurt. But I knew nothing was going to happen.”
▪ How about the second time?
“[Luongo] broke a bone in his shoulder, and he was on the way back from the hospital when Al Montoya got hurt. Now I’m standing in the tunnel with real emotions in my head. This was more real. I was worried.
“I don’t play goalie anymore. I haven’t taken shots in years. I don’t even wear goalie skates. I wear forward skates to move around faster.
“Every ounce of my body was saying, ‘Please don’t let this happen.’ Luckily, [Luongo] got back and finished the game with a broken bone in his shoulder.”
▪ Harri to the rescue: Rookie goalie Harri Sateri started the week without an NHL win and then proceeded to win two in a row, both of them on the road. He beat the Islanders 4-1 and Buffalo 4-2.
▪ Injury report: The Panthers’ top two goalies — Roberto Luongo and James Reimer — are set to begin practicing this coming week and could return soon from leg injuries.
▪ Look ahead — Tuesday: Canucks at Panthers; Friday: Kings at Predators.