A glance at the list of hottest NHL teams since the end of January will show you that teams currently in playoff spots have done well to position themselves for the season’s final month. The Florida Panthers are just on the outside of the postseason picture, but have truly helped themselves with a 13-3-0 run in their last 16 teams.
The Panthers are a point behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference, but they also possess three games in-hand, which could put them in a comfier position should they win those.
Starting goaltender Roberto Luongo, who missed two months due to a groin injury, returned during this run and has helped the Panthers win six of his last seven starts while boasting a .945 even strength save percentage over that stretch.
The mood, as you can imagine, is quite fun inside the Panthers’ room.
“We’re excited to come to the rink every day and that’s what it’s all about,” Luongo told Pro Hockey Talk on Monday. “You want to be playing meaningful games this time of the year. Right now, we actually feel like we’re in playoff mode. It’s just fun coming to rink, hanging out with the guys, laughing and knowing that every time you step on the ice it can be a difference maker in the season.”
We spoke with Luongo about the teammate who’s impressed him the most, what he would tell his younger self, how fantasy sports has impacted his future career plans and more.
PHT: This run started in early February and it kept rolling after you came back. When you miss as much time as you did, how much easier is it to return when a team’s playing well compared to in a slump? Is there less pressure on you?
LUONGO: “Yeah, it was quite seamless. You’re not quite sure how you’re going to feel after not playing for two months, but the fact that the team was playing so well made it much easier on myself and didn’t put as much pressure on my shoulders to come in and try to save the day.”
The team is in a similar position today as it was last year, but there are new faces and there’s some positive momentum. How is what’s driving this team this year different than last year?
“I think it’s totally different. Last year it was a bit of a whirlwind with everything that happened. This year, I think we’re more settled. We believe in our group, in our systems, in our coaches. We’re just a confident group in the way we’re playing. It’s just got a different vibe to it in general.”
Who’s a guy on the team that has made the biggest jump from training camp?
“Obviously, [Aleksander] Barkov’s been our best player, but as far as jumps go, he’s always been our best player. I feel like he’s taken it to another level the last few weeks here. What he’s been able to do in the last 2-3 weeks has been head-scratching. It brings me back to my early days with Vancouver when I would see [Daniel and Henrik Sedin] play when they’re at the peak of their careers, but there were two of them; he’s by himself, so it’s quite impressive.”
When you’re out for the amount of time you were at the end of last year and then this season, how much are you playing coach and pointing things out to James [Reimer] from what you see?
“We chat once in a while… Whenever we have a game, if I know certain tendencies of certain guys, what they like to do, I’ll give him a quick word. But most of the time the guys know how to prepare and what they need to do to be ready. Even if I have something to say, I will once in a while, most of the time I don’t want to disrupt their routine.”
You’re approaching game No. 1,000. What do you remember about game No. 1 (43-save, 2-1 win vs. Boston, Nov. 28, 1999)?
“I remember it being an afternoon game and I had just got called up and I was notified that morning that I was starting. It was quite short notice and I didn’t have my parents or anybody to have time to come down and see me play. Maybe it was a good thing, so it didn’t allow me too much time to think about it and just go out there and play. I remember being really nervous and just realizing a dream.”
If you could go back and give 21-year-old Roberto advice, what would you tell him?
“I think in the earlier stages in my career I didn’t have as much fun playing the game, just because I was so nervous and so wanting to perform well that most of my energy was focused on that. As I got a little bit older, I realized that [I need] to go out there and have fun and enjoy the game, and if you work hard the results will come. I see it in a different way now and it’s really helped me out.”
How much of that mindset changed going from a media market like Vancouver back to Florida?
“I started thinking that way towards the end of my tenure in Vancouver and with all the stuff that happened, I realized that sometimes it’s not worth it to beat yourself up over things and that you are still playing in the NHL and you need to realize that and enjoy the moment. You don’t want to have any regrets when you’re done playing. That’s what came about and since then I find that it’s really helped me out along the way as far as performance.”
You still have four years left on your deal after this season. Have you given thought as to what you might want to do after hockey is over? Poker player? Professional fantasy football analyst?
“I don’t play poker anymore. Unfortunately, I don’t have that much time for it. But honestly, I love fantasy sports so much that I’d like to maybe become a GM, if possible, in the future of an NHL team. If that works out.”
Have you asked [Panthers GM] Dale [Tallon] for any tips on how to get started?
“[Laughs] Not yet. I’ve got to wait until I retire for that. I want to keep going for now.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.