Roberto Luongo’s Rookie Season Review
What does a NHL team do with their franchise goalie when his own teammates can barely score more than 2 goals with him in net? This was the problem that Florida management faced when assessing the teams play in front of Trevor Kidd and the back-up goalie at the time, Roberto Luongo. In the early part of the season, The Panthers were decimated with injuries to their already thin defense, and at times this left the unfortunate burden on the two goalies to keep the Panthers in each game. Thrown into the fire was the confident and technically proficient Roberto, who struggled mightily in providing the necessary clutch goaltending. One of the early criticisms that he faced was the tendency of some teams to win or tie the game in the waning moments of the game.Luongo started the season going 1-11-2, in which he got his first shut-out against Minnesota on Oct 22nd before he was able to get his first win against Tampa Bay on Dec 25th. At the time, he had a steady, but unspectacular .901 save percentage and 2.5 GAA. Clearly not good enough to put the Panthers in the win column when the offense rarely scored over 2 goals a game, and for the season Luongo had the unfortunate luck of being the starting goalie in 5 of the 6 games that the Panthers were shut out in.
So with the alarming lack of offensive support piling on top of the young 21-year-old goaltender, his quiet confidence was in jeopardy of becoming a not so quiet full-blown panic attack. Wisely enough, Panther management looked at the AHL schedule and saw an opportunity for Roberto to play in 3 consecutive nights in Louisville. Luongo was given the opportunity to get some less pressure filled playing time for the depleted Panthers in Louisville. Getting sent down to the Louisville Panthers was the exact definition of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. With all the injuries piling up for the NHL squad, an alarming amount of young rookies were not available to play in front of Luongo for his AHL games. Seeing NHL time while they should have been in Louisville was John Jakopin, Serge Payer, Dan Boyle, and Peter Ratchuk, while scorer Eric Boguniecki was traded to Worcester right in the middle of Luongo’s demotion. With a third of the Louisville defense called up to the NHL, Luongo was playing behind a depleted defense and performed adequately going 1-2-0 with a 3.33 GAA and a .941 save percentage. He was quoted as saying the time in Louisville gave him the opportunity to go out and have fun again, clear his head and just worry about stopping the puck. Did it help? In the next 3 games, Luongo had the opportunity to set a new Florida goaltending record by going 130 minutes and 35 seconds of playing shutout hockey, earning the donut against Washington and Boston by stopping a total of 34 shots. This string of games served notice that he was only starting to get warmed up, lending credence to the Three Doors Down song “Kryptonite” that blared over the PA whenever the goalie was on fire. Determined to stop Luongo from earning his cape and tights, the Panther team woes continued and it seemed Florida had an endless supply of Kryptonite. Roberto went 6-9-0 over a span of games from Jan 9th to Feb 28th. He even was able to earn another shutout against the Western Conference Champion Dallas Stars on Jan 15th, but the many 3 or 4 goals against games proved too much to earn more wins.Enter the Atlanta Thrashers. Always an un-welcome sight in their first year for the Panthers, the Thrashers always came to play hard against the Panthers with some success. But on March 3rd, Roberto again re-emerged from the last 4 losses with an amazing performance to solidify his hold as the premier young goalie in the league. After seeing 29 shots in regulation, Luongo entered that ethereal zone and stopped all 10 Thrashers shots in overtime to preserve the tie and end the night with 39 saves. This performance seemed to empower him and started to show the always-skeptical Panther fans why Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha were used to pry away Roberto in a draft day trade.To keep the train rolling after the Atlanta game, Luongo went 3-1-3 in March. He had an amazing 34 saves against Toronto for the win on Mar 21st and followed that up with a 38 save win against the Capitals two nights later. All of this despite the anemic Panthers season-ending goal output with Luongo in net. In the 41 starts, the Panthers have scored an average of 2.1 goals a game, and they scored two goals or less in 25 of Luongo’s 40 starts. Only 3 times all season have the Panthers scored more than 3 goals a game for him, so it becomes quite evident that “offense” was only a word that flitted around Luongo’s nightmares. On March 28th, a home game against the Canadiens surely must have been having the Montreal faithful attending the game exclaiming “Sacre Blu!” Save after save of point blank shot after shot was pelting the young netminder, who only gave up two goals in a 38 save performance that defied all Panther nay-sayers of the remarkable talent that is possessed in the tall and agile kid from Montreal.To show what a demotion to the minors can do for a young player, especially a goaltender, one has to look at Roberto Luongo’s run to the end the season. In his last 11 starts of the year, he went 4-3-5 in that stretch and only allowed two goals or less in 7 of his last 12 starts. This marathon sprint to the finish earned Luongo a 12-24-7 record with a .920 save percentage (7th in the league with a minimum of 25 games), better than established goalies such as Curtis Joseph ( .915% ) and Patrick Roy ( .913% )The only thing that would put a nail in the coffin of the fans whining about losing Mark Parrish, was for Luongo to give the hometown fans a taste of what is to come for next season. He had that opportunity in the final home game of the season against the New York Rangers, and going into the game he was tied with John Vanbiesbrouck’s Panther shutout record of 4 games. With nothing to lose, the Panthers simply went out and put on a show against the equally inept Rangers by scoring three 3rd period goals in a span of 86 seconds. The only thing keeping the goalie from passing out in a “goal-scoring euphoria” was the 8 minutes and 35 seconds he needed to play to become the Panthers record breaking shutout holder. After a season initially viewed with promise by all the pundits, fans, and management, a season that saw the Panthers finish 3rd in man-games lost and have the 4th worst record in the league, a season in which Bure accounted for nearly 29.5% of the team offense (breaking Brett Hull’s record of 27.7% with the Blues), and a season in which several Panther veterans such as Scott Mellanby, Ray Whitney, Todd Simpson, Igor Larionov, and Jaroslav Spacek became the victims of a house-cleaning.In working in this tumultuous atmosphere, it was only fitting that the future of the Panthers, Roberto Luongo earned his 5th shutout to end his remarkable season in the statistic books.
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