‘A legendary career’ Luongo third goalie to 1,000 NHL games
“A legendary career.”
That’s how Columbus Columbus Blue Jackets goaltending coach Ian Clark summed up long-time pupil Roberto Luongo as he hit an incredible milestone that further cemented that status.
Luongo played his 1,000th game in the NHL on Thursday, stopping 26 shots in a 3-2 win against the Boston Bruins to keep the Florida Panthers playoff hopes alive. In doing so, Luongo joined legends Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, as the only goaltenders in NHL history to reach that milestone.
It’s a number made all the more remarkable by how few have reached it.
“I always thought it’s was one of the ultimate goals,” said Grant Fuhr, the goalie Luongo grew up idolizing and imitating as a youngster in Montreal. Fuhr played 19 seasons, including an single-season record 79 games in 1995-96 at age 33, but finished ninth all time with 868 games played, well short of 1,000.
“You have to play along time at a high level and you have to stay healthy and both are hard to do so I think that says a lot about how good he has been,” Fuhr said. “It’s awesome he gets there.”
Staying so good for so long is the only way for a goaltender to reach 1,000 games.
Of the 322 players in NHL history to hit the milestone, less than one percent are goalies. Some of the reasons are obvious: goalies can’t play every game like a skater, with only three playing more than 70 games in any of the past six seasons. It’s a physically demanding position, and injuries can chip away at the games played total, as can a hot backup who takes over the net for short periods of time.
Perhaps more than anything else, however, there is no way to keep playing a lot unless you are playing well. Unlike a forward who can finish his career playing down the lineup, or a defenseman who can drop onto a third pairing or play limited minutes, there’s no place to hide as a No.1 goaltender. And there’s obviously now way to reach the 1,000-game milestone as a backup.
No wonder the first two to do so were first-ballot Hall of Famers.
“When I was going through it, that’s exactly what I was thinking, you start to look at the history and like nobody has done it,” said Brodeur, who became the second goaltender after Roy to hit the 1,000-game milestone on Oct. 3, 2009, and finished his career in 2015 first all-time with 1,266 games played. “Now for Lu to be part of that group, it says a lot about how successful you are, how durable you are, and it’s not something that happens every day for a reason. There are a lot of goalies that played and had a lot of success but never achieved that. It’s something to be really proud of.”
It’s something Brodeur said speaks to continued excellence, and a feat he thinks will only get harder.
“Being consistent is one thing but you have to be good also because you ain’t getting the job done if you are just consistent,” he said. “It’s a tough job now, organizations don’t stick with their goalie.”
DRIVE TO BE A NO. 1
Luongo deferred a celebration of the 1,000 game milestone to next season, preferring to focus on the playoff push, but his actions this week proved what it really takes to be a No.1 goaltender.
Luongo won three-straight games while playing through a rib injury with the Panthers playoff hopes hanging in the balance. That included stopping 45 of 46 in the second half of back-to-back games on Tuesday, an effort that left Luongo needing IV fluids after the win. He celebrated his 39th birthday on Wednesday, then backstopped a hard win over his old rival, the Bruins, on Thursday.
Recently retired goalie coach Francois Allaire said it reminds him of Roy, both long-time pupils.
“You cannot reach [1,000 games] without having the drive to be a No. 1 goalie,” Allaire said. “Sometimes it’s fun to be a No. 1, but it’s tough too because you have to carry the team, you have to be there for the good, for the bad, you have to play injured, you have to play sick, but you have to have the drive to say ‘hey I’m the No. 1 guy and I want that spot and I want to play as many games as I can.’ They are a special breed, the No. 1 guy is a special commitment, a special breed to be that.”
Luongo has shown that through the injuries that plagued his last two seasons. He needed hip surgery for a torn labrum in May 2016 and, despite wearing a hole in the tiles on the bottom of his backyard pool doing water-based rehab exercises that summer, it acted up again during the 2016-17 season, ending it six weeks early after months of trying to play through the pain. A thumb injury cost him six games early this season, and a torn groin kept him from from early December through mid-February.
That drive to be the guy to gets Florida into the playoffs brought him back stronger.
“You can just tell he wants to be the guy all the time, even at his age,” Brodeur said. “He battles for his ice time, he battles to get back from injury as quick as he can, that passion is important if you want to be successful as an athlete, the joy of playing that game and wanting to be the guy over and over and not just say ‘oh, I don’t have it know, I’ll take a seat.’ You fight through all that stuff and Luongo has been doing that for years now and that’s why he is where he is at.”
ALWAYS LOOKING FOR WAYS TO IMPROVE
Luongo’s .919 career save percentage, which is seventh all time, speaks to a consistent level of excellence and he’s been even better this season, with a .929 save percentage that ranks fourth in the NHL.
So what has allowed Luongo to continue to keep getting better with age?
It’s his passion for a position that is constantly evolving.
From the latest equipment to newest techniques, Luongo is always looking to get better.
Luongo worked with Allaire in Florida during the 2012 lockout, focusing on recovering to his posts. When his VH started getting exposed, he worked with Clark during the summer to learn reverse-VH. He made trips to Switzerland to work with his brother, Leo Loungo, who is now the Panthers AHL goalie coach, and each off-season he hits the ice with current Panthers goalie coach Rob Tallas every weekday starting in August to refine and sharpen his technique and get ready for the next season.
“Lu is such a student of the game that he had a variety of people throughout his career that he leaned on,” said Clark, who was the goalie coach for one year during Luongo’s first stint in Florida and four of his six seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. “He continued to lean on them knowing each had a different perspective on the position and he almost rotated through like a carousel, grabbing information as he went to evolve his game. He never stuck and only listened to one person, his ears were always open, his mind was always open to what he could apply to his game to keep him at the forefront of the positon.”
That evolution wasn’t limited to technique either. His equipment has changed too
When Luongo broke a bone in his right shoulder three seasons ago, he tried a composite stick while rehabbing because it made it easier to practice while it healed. Realizing the lighter stick also freed up his blocker, he’s used a CCM Premier composite stick ever since. This season, he also made a dramatic switch from old Reebok 9k skates to a significantly taller, no-cowling True two-piece skate because he felt it was easier to get a good edge and avoid risky slip outs when pushing laterally from his knees.
“If he hears about things other guys are trying, he wants all the information on it,” Tallas said. “He’s so open to change and to tweak things that will better his game.”
Luongo also switched up the strapping on his new Premier 2 pads, switching away from his traditional leather straps and over to the new Quick Motion strapping. Even more impressive? He originally ordered his usual leather but switched after seeing how well the new strapping worked on the kids who joined him, Marc-Andre Fleury and Corey Crawford on the ice for the annual CCM Goalie Summit.
“I saw them, I ordered a pair and wore them within a few days in a game,” Luongo told InGoal (look for a video of him explaining it with the upcoming review of the new, noticeably lighter Premier 2 pads). “It’s a system with an elastic on the inside of your upper calf and that’s what allows the pad to slam down on the ice quicker when you go butterfly. In theory it should hit the ice quicker than a regular pad to close up the five-hole. Other than that, there is less buckles to tie up and it makes my job a lot easier to get dressed. Every year they come up with some new stuff that makes it lighter and easier to get around and obviously with less buckles and straps it alleviates a lot of that weight. You can definitely tell the difference.”
FIRST ALL TIME STILL IN SIGHTS
When Luongo was traded back to Florida by the Canucks at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline, some talked about it like some form of semi-retirement. Those who new Luongo well knew better.
Luongo has a .921 save percentage in 211 games since returning to Florida, and has worked incredibly hard to come back from two serious injuries. He has moved into fourth place on the all-time NHL win list with (470), just 13 behind Ed Belfour (484) for third, but at least two great seasons short of Roy (551) and well back of all-time leader Brodeur, whose 691 wins seems like an unbreakable record. Luongo should pass Roy (1,029) for second on the games played list next season, but would need almost five more 55-start seasons to pass Brodeur (1,266) for first all time on that list.
Luongo is, however, really close to passing Brodeur for first place in another category: saves.
Brodeur leads the all-time NHL list with 28,928 saves. Luongo is second with 27, 318 career saves, just 1,610 behind Brodeur, a number he could reach with one 60-start season.
Of course, anyone who thinks Luongo keeps playing to make history is as wrong as those who expected him to skate into the sunset in Florida. While the recurrence of hip problems last season had him wondering about his future in the summer, and there may come a day when he prioritizes spending more time at home with his young family, Luongo, who has four years left on his contract, always said he’ll play as long as his daily drive to improve remains, he is still having fun, and has a chance to win.
“It’s been a long run and I’m going to try to keep it going as long as possible. Having fun playing the game. To me, that’s all that matters,” Luongo said. “I work to improve my game every day, and the day I feel I don’t need to do that anymore will probably be the day I retire.”
Don’t count on it happening anytime soon, but when it does it will mark the end of a legendary career, one that will be measured on a list almost as short as the one he joined at 1,000 games.