Roberto Luongo is usually one of the first NHL players to return to the ice in the heat of summer but this August was much different for the Florida Panthers goalie.
Luongo, 37, has to undergo surgery in May for a hip injury that bothered him throughout last season.
After a month on crutches, Luongo began his rehabilitation and returned to the ice Aug. 5 -- and hasn't come off since.
Although Luongo said if the season started Thursday, he probably wouldn't be able to start, he says he is feeling good and plans to be in net when the Panthers actually do open their season Oct. 13 at BB&T Center against the Devils.
"I'm excited, hopeful to be where I want to be when everything gets going," Luongo said after an informal workout Wednesday morning at the IceDen in Coral Springs.
"I started skating Aug. 5 and there has been slow progression but we've ramped it up here the past week or so and it has been good.
"I'm not 100 percent; it's a five month rehab. But I'm feeling better than I thought I would. I thought it would be a slower progression, especially on the ice. It has gone fairly quickly and I'm happy about that. If the season were to start tomorrow, I probably wouldn't be able to go. But I feel good where I'm at and I'm excited about it."
Said goalie coach Robb Tallas: "We're going into our fourth week and he's doing really well. He is very optimistic about starting the season and has put a lot of time in not only at the rink but off the ice. He has really committed himself this summer to being 100 percent again. We're at the point where there aren't a lot of restrictions on what he's doing on the ice. That's a great sign."
Luongo said he started feeling sharp pain in his groin early in the season, but the pain quickly went away so he didn't concern himself with it too much.
"I thought it was weird, I couldn't understand why it felt like I hurt my groin but it would go away," he said. "I just kept going along. Since it always went away, I didn't think too much about it."
Then, on March 3 in Denver in a game against the Avalanche, Luongo made a save and felt the pain again. This time, it didn't go away as quickly and "my whole side went out."
Then-athletic trainer Dave Zenobi examined Luongo the next day and the problem was discovered: Luongo had a torn labrum.
"I was pretty sore the next day, they started moving my leg and figured I tore my labrum," Luongo said. "We treated it, managed it with exercises every day to alleviate some of the pain. After a few days, the pain was gone but I would still get those moments of sharp pain if I moved a certain way. I dealt with that the rest of the season, but it didn't happen all that often. I didn't feel it that much in the playoffs which was a good thing."
Tallas has been working with Luongo throughout the summer and said Luongo's injury wasn't so bad that he needed to be shut down.
Luongo managed the pain through a new regimen of stretching and stayed on the ice and helped the Panthers advance to the postseason.
"Any injury is going to affect you, but if there was a major risk to him -- something game-changing -- we wouldn't have played him," Tallas said.
"There were times in a game we would recognize it and he felt it. Looking back, did it cost him any goals? I don't think so. But there's a mental struggle where he had to change his routine, change how he warmed up to make sure he was loose and didn't feel any irritations during a game. Good on him for doing that and battling through it."
Florida general manager Tom Rowe said in June that the Panthers acquired goalie Reto Berra from Colorado as an insurance policy in case Luongo wouldn't be able to start the season.
Now that it appears Luongo won't miss much or any time come October, the Panthers will go into camp with three NHL-tested goalies.
Berra will likely start the season in the American Hockey League with the Springfield Thunderbirds with Luongo and newly-signed backup James Reimer going in Florida.
With Reimer signed to a five-year deal in July, the Panthers have a new plan for their goaltending situation.
Reimer is expected to play more than Al Montoya did the past two seasons spelling Luongo and allowing him to be much fresher heading into the grind of the postseason.
Luongo says he's good with that plan.
"I think it's important in the new NHL to have three goalies who can play," he said. "We all saw what happened here a few years ago. 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.
"A little bit more rest for me should keep me fresh for the playoffs; that's a good thing. If I was 29, I probably wouldn't be saying the same thing. I might even be upset about it. But I've through a lot, went through this in Vancouver toward the end.
"You learn how to manage these things. I'm mature enough now to see that at 37, it's tough to play 60 games especially with the travel and all that. To me, it's all about the success of the team here. With Reimer backing me up and playing some games, it should put us in a good position where we want to be come playoff time and that's what it is all about."
For Tallas, having three NHL goalies heading into camp is abundance of riches.
Reimer was the starter in Toronto before being traded to San Jose last season and Berra gained experience playing in Colorado.
As they say, competition is never a bad thing.
"You look at where we're at in goal and they will all be competing," Tallas said. "That's always healthy to have that. You look at the long season; you never know what can happen and we have three guys who can step up and win games. That's always a good thing. You need three guys these days. Teams are stacked. You need the insurance because you never know what can happen. You can't afford to lose a guy for a few weeks and go on a downslide for a few weeks."