Sports

On big night for Roberto Luongo, Panthers goalie Chris Driedger also delivered a win

The ceremony to retire former goalie Roberto Luongo’s jersey, No. 1, got emotional Saturday night, especially when he talked about his wife, Gina, calling her “the love of my life.”

During another part of Luongo’s passionate on-ice speech at the BB&T Center, he implored his former Florida Panthers teammates to believe in themselves, enjoy the moment and “work your hearts out.”

It’s impossible to say what effect Luongo’s pep talk had on the Panthers, who went on to defeat the Montreal Canadiens, 4-1, on Saturday night.

But it didn’t hurt.

Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said his players did indeed play for Luongo.

“Right off the bat, it was, ‘let’s get two [points] for ‘Lu,’ ” Quenneville said.

Added Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad: “I played five years with Lu, and I got to know him really well as a person. It was a spectacular night for him and his family.”

Here are several takeaways from the Luongo ceremony, the Panthers win and where the team goes from here:

1: Tears of joy: The most touching part of Luongo’s speech was when he talked about his family, including Gina and their young children: daughter, Gabriella, and son, Gianni.

“I want to thank you for …,” Luongo said to Gina before his voice cracked with emotion, “… for being on this journey with me. I know it wasn’t always easy. There were some long road trips. But there’s nobody else in this world that I would’ve rather spent it with, so … You are my life, and I love you forever.”

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Gina could be seen wiping a tear from her left eye. Moments later, as Luongo’s jersey was raised to the rafters, young Gianni was bawling — such was the emotion.

2: Skid snapped: The Panthers broke their franchise-record, eight-game home losing streak. It was their first home win since Jan. 16.

The Panthers, who have 14 games remaining, have 76 points and trail the Toronto Maple Leafs by three points in the race for the final Atlantic Division playoff berth. The Leafs have just 13 games left, and the Panthers also have possibilities in the wild-card chase if they can’t catch Toronto.

3: Inspired goalie: Panthers backup goalie Chris Driedger, who had never started an NHL contest prior to this season, returned from the injury list on Thursday and has allowed just three goals in two games.

For the season, Driedger’s numbers are stellar: 6-2-1, 2.16 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage.

“I can’t say enough good things about how comfortable he’s looked in these two games,” Quenneville said.

Driedger, who at age 25 is 15 years younger than Luongo, said he’s watched the retired Panthers star nearly his entire life.

“He’s a role model for me,” Driedger said.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see what happens when starter Sergei Bobrovsky (23-19-6, 3.23 GAA, .900 SP) returns from a lower-body injury, which has kept him out of the past two games.

So far, the stats favor Driedger.

4: D-men delight: Defenseman MacKenzie Weegar has scored a goal in two straight games, the first time that has happened in his career. He also has a career-high seven goals this season.

Another Panthers defenseman who had a noteworthy night was Ekblad, who posted two assists and now has a career-high 41 points. His previous career high was 39 points as a rookie in 2014-2015.

However, it wasn’t all good news for the Panthers d-men. Two defensemen have been hit in the face in the past two games. Anton Stralman was struck by a shot in the Boston Bruins game on Thursday and returned to action on Saturday, wearing a full visor. And Riley Stillman was hit in a collision with Montreal’s Artturi Lehkonen and did not return.

5: Up next: The Panthers play two straight road games, Monday at the St. Louis Blues and Thursday at the Dallas Stars.

The Panthers hope to continue to kill penalties effectively, which they did against Montreal. The Panthers killed off two straight two-minute penalties, and they played 3-on-5 for 70 seconds without getting beat.

“That might’ve been our biggest kill of the season — by a big margin,” Quenneville said.

Quenneville added that penalty-killers “ate” some big shots, meaning they risked pain and injury by getting their bodies in front of shooters, especially Montreal’s Shea Weber.

“Those were heavy shots from Weber,” Ekblad said. “It’s always a bit nerve-racking to step in front of those.”

Driedger credited Weegar and Noel Acciari for blocking “four or five (shots) between the two of them. Those are team guys.”

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