Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers’ Roberto Luongo relishes task of returning team to viability

Goaltender Roberto Luongo (1) of the Florida Panthers defends the net against the Minnesota Wild at the BB&T Center on Nov. 24, 2014, in Sunrise, Fla. The Wild defeated the Panthers 4-1.
Goaltender Roberto Luongo (1) of the Florida Panthers defends the net against the Minnesota Wild at the BB&T Center on Nov. 24, 2014, in Sunrise, Fla. The Wild defeated the Panthers 4-1. Getty Images

It has been a few years since Roberto Luongo was selected to play in an All-Star Game so he’s doing this one up right.

Luongo brought his family — wife Gina and their two young children — north to enjoy the sights and sounds of this celebration of hockey.

“I’m looking forward to them just enjoying this experience,” said Luongo, who is making his fourth All-Star appearance.

“I’ve been able to live this a few times but now I get it to live it through their eyes for the first time. That makes it fun. I think 2009 was my last one so it has been awhile. It’s fun and it’s an honor. I’m excited to be here.”

Luongo will play one period for “Team Toews” in Sunday’s game (5 p.m., NBCSN) before returning to South Florida to get back to trying to lift the Panthers back into the postseason.

When Luongo fought to be traded from Vancouver back to the Panthers the past couple of years, he said he did so not to retire in the sun but rather to help the franchise become viable again.

So far, he has improved the Panthers stock.

A ROLE MODEL

At 35, Luongo is putting up some of the best numbers of his career and it has helped keep Florida in the playoff conversation.

“He’s made up for all of my stupid mistakes,” said Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who is making his All-Star debut in Sunday’s game.

“I turn the puck over every once in a while and he’s always there to bail me out. He’s one of the best goalies to ever play the game and I stand by that without a doubt. He’s in the gym, in the room doing all the little things it takes to be a pro. That’s what I’ve learned from him.”

Since rejoining the Panthers last March, Luongo’s save percentage and goals-against average are among the best of his career.

Being able to put the soap opera that surrounded him in the hockey-crazed Vancouver market behind him seems to have lightened the load on his shoulders.

“He seems happy again,” Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf said. “I think that’s the main thing when you’re talking about a hockey player. If you’re in a happy place and you’re excited to be at the rink every day, chances are your play is going to go up and you’re going to be a better hockey player. I’m assuming that has a little bit to do with it.”

Luongo maintained his residence in Broward County after being traded to Vancouver in 2006, spending his offseasons in South Florida.

Being able to return to the Panthers is something he pursued for a few years as his playing time dwindled in Vancouver.

‘A FRESH START’

Coming back to the Panthers not only meant a homecoming for Luongo, but also a return to being the counted-on No. 1 goaltender.

Unlike Vancouver, there is no goalie controversy with the Panthers. From the moment Florida traded to get Luongo back, he has been the top guy.

That probably has something to do with Luongo’s state of mind in net as well.

“There was nothing wrong with Vancouver, but it had gotten to the point where I think I just needed a fresh start,” he said.

“We started with a blank page and I don’t need to worry about things as much. … The pressure doesn’t come from the outside but it comes from within. We’ve just lost four in a row and I’m as mad about that as if I was anywhere else. To me, winning is where the pressure comes from no matter where you’re playing.”

As for the game itself, Luongo said he’s not going to sweat giving up a few goals.

Being an exhibition, offense is stressed at All-Star Games and goalies aren’t expected to do much more than slow things down a bit.

“I don’t prepare — you just go out there and have fun,” Luongo said.

“You can’t take this too seriously because there’s no prize or anything like that. You just want to have fun, hang out with the guys and mix in a big save or two.”

Sunday: NHL All-Star Game

When/where: 5 p.m.; Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio.

TV: NBCSN.

Noteworthy: Florida’s Aaron Ekblad, 18, is the youngest defenseman to ever partake in an All-Star Game. … Both Ekblad and G Roberto Luongo are playing for “Team Toews” after being selected by captain Jonathan Toews of Chicago.

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