Luongo everything Panthers could have hoped in first full season back

Once a perennial pushover in the Eastern Conference, the Florida Panthers saw their goals-against average improve from 29th (3.20) in 2013-14 to 16th (2.60) with Roberto Luongo serving as the team’s backbone in between the pipes this past season.

"He’s been our MVP, our best player most nights," head coach Gerard Gallant said in early April.

"He’s been a leader on this team, and coming into this season, he’s everything I could’ve asked for as a coach."

In his first full season since returning to South Florida, Luongo’s outstanding play not only merited his coach’s appreciation, but also reaffirmed the organization’s decision to reacquire their former franchise goaltender on the eve of the 2014 trade deadline.

He was named an NHL All-Star for the fourth time in his career and enjoyed one of his best statistical seasons in recent years, posting a 28-19-12 record with a 2.35 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.

"We went toe-to-toe with everybody this year," said Luongo. "The good teams, we played them well and we won some games. It’s just a matter of growing as a team, getting a bit more experience and taking the next step.

"We took a huge step this year, but we fell a little bit short. It’s really a matter of putting it all together next year."

The defining moment of Luongo’s season came in a bizarre 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 3 when, after leaving the game with a serious shoulder injury, he rushed back from the hospital to finish the contest after backup Al Montoya sustained an injury of his own.

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"The one that hurt the most was the Toronto game," said Luongo. "That’s their only road win this year, obviously, with some unreal circumstances that happened to our team. Those two points could’ve been useful down the stretch."

That unfortunate loss may have cost the Panthers two points in the standings, but it also showcased Luongo’s strong character and willingness to literally sacrifice his body for the good of the team.

Regardless of the circumstances, he never accepts defeat.

"It’s all about the culture in the locker room, expectations, making sure you demand the most of yourself every night and not accept losses," Luongo said.

WHAT HE DID RIGHT

Luongo was at his best when under duress this past season, posting a 15-5-6 record in games in which he faced 30-or-more shots. With his infectiously relaxed demeanor, he also served as a calming presence during numerous high-anxiety games for the Panthers.

WHERE HE NEEDS TO IMPROVE

The Panthers competed in league-high 18 shootouts this past season and came away victorious in only eight of them. Luongo, who posted a 7-8 record with a .720 save percentage in the skills competition, may not have been the sole reason for these defeats, however, a few more saves could have salvaged a few extra points.

BEST GAME

Jan. 8 at Vancouver. In an emotional return to a place he called home for nearly a decade, Luongo stopped 32 of 33 shots to lead the Panthers to a 3-1 victory over the Canucks. Vancouver’s all-time leader in wins (252) and shutouts (38), the victory also placed him in a tie for 11th place on the NHL’s all-time wins list with Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek. Honored as the first star of the game for his exceptional performance, Luongo not only slayed an opponent that night, but also a demon from his past.

"I played here for eight years. I gave my heart and soul the whole time. There was some ups and downs, obviously, but at the end of the day I’m glad that the positive is remembered more than the negative," Luongo said on the FOX Sports Florida broadcast.

A PLACE IN HISTORY

Luongo became only the 11th goaltender in NHL history to reach the 400-win mark when he turned aside 31 of 32 shots in a 6-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on April 2. The Panthers marked the achievement by awarding Luongo a commemorative silver stick before his final start of the season.

SAVE OF THE YEAR

LOOKING AHEAD

With seven years and $25 million remaining on his contract, it’s essential that Luongo remain a healthy and viable starter for the Panthers for at least the next several seasons. At 36 years old, it’s likely that he will begin to show his age at some point, but up until now he’s done a fantastic job of slowing his anticipated decline.

You can follow Jameson Olive on Twitter @JamesonCoop or email him at JamesonOlive@gmail.com.