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Surprising Florida Panthers a perfect mix of youth and experience

Florida Panthers' goalie Roberto Luongo (1) makes a save on the Edmonton Oilers during second period NHL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Sunday, January 10, 2016. Luongo was 11 when Jaromir Jagr entered the NHL. Asked what he remembers about the flashy forward's early years, the Florida Panthers' 36-year-old goalie responded with a smile: "The mullet ... that's it." THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
January 12, 2016 - 2:20 PM

VANCOUVER - Roberto Luongo was 11 when Jaromir Jagr entered the NHL.

Asked what he recalled about the flashy forward back then, the Florida Panthers' 36-year-old goalie responded with a smile: "The mullet."

Luongo is among a handful of Panthers who remember, or were even alive, when Jagr played his first game back in 1990.

"He's a freak of nature," Luongo said of his 43-year-old teammate. "I've never seen anybody like that before. Incredible the things he's doing at his age, the work ethic he has."

Perhaps equally incredible is how Luongo, Jagr and a few other veterans have meshed with the Panthers' talented and youthful core to turn heads and be one of the NHL's biggest surprises through the first half of the season.

Florida (26-12-5) won a franchise-record 12 straight games before Monday's 3-2 loss overtime loss in Vancouver, a stretch that rocketed the club up the standings to first place in the Atlantic Division and second in the Eastern Conference.

"Everybody's really bought into what we're trying to do as a team," Luongo said prior to the game against the Canucks. "Young guys have really come into their own, the older guys on the team have stepped up and played big roles for us."

Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant points to the leadership Luongo, Jagr, Willie Mitchell (38), Shawn Thornton (38) and Brian Campbell (36) have provided to a group that has 11 players under the age of 25, including Aaron Ekblad (19), Aleksander Barkov (20) and Jonathan Huberdeau (22).

"They're huge for our young guys," said Gallant. "They're showing them the way, they're playing hard and they can all still contribute to our team and play well. That's the most important thing."

Jagr has 15 goals and 17 assists this season, while Luongo saw a personal nine-game winning streak snapped in the loss to Vancouver after allowing two goals or fewer in six straight starts.

"Everybody's playing well so it's easier for me to do my job and contribute," said Luongo. "Guys go down, other guys step up. Whether that's a young call-up or guys that have been out of the lineup, chemistry in the locker-room is really great."

Luongo returned to Florida in a trade with Vancouver back in 2014 after a turbulent end to his eight seasons with the Canucks that included a trip to the 2011 Stanley Cup.

Some observers thought Luongo would simply fade away with the Panthers, but the two-time Olympic gold medallist had other ideas.

"I didn't go there just to retire," he said. "I went there to turn the corner of the franchise, get them back in the playoffs and make a run. I want to have at least one more crack at (the Cup), if not more. That's why we play the game."

The recent success on the ice for the Panthers has gone hand-in-hand with good news off it. The start of the winning streak in December coincided with the team reaching an arena deal that guarantees its future in South Florida for at least the next decade. Fans have responded by starting to fill the seats at BB&T Center after years of poor attendance.

"There's a lot of buzz," said Luongo. "That's what it takes to bring people to the building down there. Get a good team, get some wins and all of sudden everybody's interested."

The Panthers have qualified for the playoffs once over the last 14 seasons — losing out in the first round back in 2012 — and know that despite their strong run, the job is far from complete.

"We try not to make too big a deal out of it and just go about our business. You always want to stay at an even keel," said Luongo. "There's a long way to go before we can start basking in anything."

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News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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