Greg Cote

Roberto Luongo saves day, and maybe series and season, for Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo works to protect the goal in the final minutes of the third period as they play the New York Islanders in Game 2 of the first round of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, Fri., April 15, 2016.
Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo works to protect the goal in the final minutes of the third period as they play the New York Islanders in Game 2 of the first round of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, Fri., April 15, 2016. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

His team needed this so badly. So did he, every bit as much.

The Florida Panthers got what they had to have Friday night because Roberto Luongo did, too.

The goaltender in his 16-year NHL career has made almost 30,000 saves, but his biggest might have come here in Game 2 of the playoffs’ first round.

He saved a season – maybe not literally, but close enough.

Luongo toyed with his sixth career postseason shutout and excelled nonetheless in the Panthers’ 3-1 triumph over the New York Islanders, the team that drafted him in 1997, and it meant everything, that’s all.

Florida might have fallen to a dispirited 2-0 series deficit and faced huge odds as the best-of-seven set heads now to Brooklyn for a pair of games. Instead the Cats are even at 1-1, order and faith restored for the Atlantic Division champions who entered this series a clear favorite.

Goals by Reilly Smith and Nick Bjugstad (and a late empty netter) made the horn blast and the Sunrise arena rock Friday, but the night belonged to Luongo as – far more often than that horn blast – you heard the sound of 18,373 fans serenading their goalie with “Luuuuuuu!” as he denied yet another Islanders shot.

He’d had a shutout until 3:33 remained, when John Tavares slipped the puck past him on a ricochet off the boards behind the net. Luongo would stop 41 of 42 shots and was voted first star of the game in what must have been a landslide.

Just one night earlier this rare playoff back-to-back had begun with a 5-4 Panthers loss as Luongo set a dubious franchise record for most goals allowed in a playoff game, and Friday the Isles meant to rattle him with an early assault.

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“They threw a lot of pucks at the net early on,” as Luongo put it. “But I was able to get into a rhythm and feel good.”

It wasn't just Thursday’s loss that dismayed and made Friday loom so large.

It was the trend.

Thursday made it seven consecutive playoff losses for Luongo stretched across four different postseasons dating to 2011.

Seven losses in a row that included two straight to end the ’11 Finals and snatch the Stanley Cup from Vancouver’s hands. He was 0-2 for the Canucks in both the 2012 and ’13 postseasons, benched in the latter.

(He’d had two shutouts earlier in the ‘11 Finals, his last playoff wins before Friday night).

But his seventh straight playoff loss Thursday in that five-goal barrage – even though defensive lapses were the main culprit – suddenly invited the notion that Luongo, now 37, was playing his age.

He downplayed the personal significance.

“They all feel good,” he said of the win, wearing a red Panthers cap afterward, and a blue Spacey In Space sweatshirt gifted him by the team. “It’s the playoffs!”

It was a night of redemption, a reminder that Luongo helped get the Cats this far in the first place with a terrific individual season in which only Jaromir Jagr might have edged him for team MVP. It also was a declaration that, even after seven straight playoff losses and even at 37, Luongo is still the man you want guarding your net in April and beyond.

It’s important to reiterate that the Game 1 defensive collapse didn’t start with Luongo. And credit to coach Gerard Gallant for sticking with Luongo in Game 2, when it would have been easy to panic, sit him, and claim it was because his old bones needed a respite from back-to-back duty.

“For me we gave them four goals,” said Gallant of Game 1, blaming defensive lapses for all but one Isles goal Thursday.

But, did the coach need more from Luongo?

“No, we need more from our team,” said the coach. “No, Louie was fine.”

Thursday, he was fine.

Friday, he was sublime.

“We knew he was going to bounce back and have a great game” said Gallant.

It was one of the greatest, best-timed performances we have seen in South Florida playoff history, any sport.

You always hear it said that quarterback is the most important position in sports.

That’s arguable. The most important – certainly the most pressure-filled – might be the hockey goaltender, who can’t afford to blink lest a black bullet whiz past him.

Goalies need help, though. Friday delivered some.

The game started well for Florida because it was clean defensively –the main aim after Thursday’s collapses.

The opening period ended 1-0, Cats, on Smith’s neat deposit of a deflection off the goalie for his third goal in two nights. Mostly it was stout play by Luongo that marked the first third.

Florida made a major defensive change Friday – and a daring one – inserting 22-year-old Mike Matheson, who appeared in only three games for the parent club all season. He spent his year with the AHL’s Portland Pirates, effectively introducing himself to the NHL under playoff pressure.

“I thought the kid was great,” said Gallant.

Thursday the Cats squandered three leads. Not Friday.

Bjugstad’s goal made it 2-0 with what proved the winning goal – Bjugstad, who at 22 can’t grow a decent playoff beard, but can grow a lead.

It was 3-1 on an empty netter by Dmitry Kulikov with 9.3 seconds left as a slightly premature rain of rubber rats pelted merrily onto the ice.

Gallant had said late Thursday night, “It’s only 1-0. There’s nothing to panic about.”

Oh, but there would have been, though, had Florida carried a 2-0 series deficit like a tombstone up to Brooklyn.

Roberto Luongo wouldn’t allow it.

Friday, with all of the pressure on the home team and especially on its goalie, Luongo got the victory he’d been waiting five years for, the one that gave his team and its season fresh life.

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