By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Every single one of the Bruins’ games since mid-March has been played against a team either in the playoff structure or just outside of it. The trend will continue on Thursday night in Sunrise.
With the bitter taste of Tuesday’s beatdown likely still lingering, the Bruins will be looking to re-establish themselves as the team they appeared to be all year long. They’ll also be looking to stay ahead of the Lightning for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, and they’ll also have an opportunity to essentially end the season for the Florida Panthers.
The Panthers currently sit four points behind Philadelphia for the second wild-card in the Eastern Conference. The Flyers have two games remaining, while the Panthers have three. So if the Panthers do lose on Thursday, they could still be alive, as long as the Flyers lose their game on Thursday against Carolina in regulation, as well as their final game of the season on Saturday against the Rangers.
The Panthers aren’t quite eliminated, but their hopes are hanging by a thread. And the man they’ll look to keep the season alive will be none other than Roberto Luongo.
It’ll be a milestone night for the veteran netminder, as he’s expected to be making his 1,000th career NHL appearance. He’ll become just the third goalie in history reach that mark, joining Martin Brodeur (1,266) and Patrick Roy (1,029). The closest active goalie on this list is Henrik Lundqvist, who’s played in 804 games.
It’s a fine accomplishment, but it’s one that Luongo would probably prefer to not celebrate by playing the Boston Bruins. Though he did stop all nine shots fired his way after entering a game which the Bruins led 5-1 last weekend, Luongo’s history against the Bruins is well-known. And it’s not great for the potential Hall of Famer.
It’s rooted, of course, in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. After Luongo allowed just two goals on 66 shots faced in two wins on home ice to open the series, the goaltender fell apart when the series shifted to Boston. He faced 38 shots in Game 3, and allowed eight goals — eight goals! It didn’t get much better in Game 4, when he allowed four goals on 20 shots before getting yanked early in the third period. Roberto responded excellently with a 31-save shutout in Game 5 back in Vancouver, but when his Canucks had a chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup in Game 6, Luongo once again failed mightily. He allowed three goals on just eight shots faced, this time getting pulled before the midway mark of the first period.
The series then headed back to Vancouver for Game 7, and Luongo allowed three goals on 20 shots while his counterpart, Tim Thomas, turned in a 37-save shutout.
That performance (or lack thereof) combined with the war of words Luongo incited with Thomas led to a special sort of spotlight being placed on Luongo in the years that followed. When the two teams met the following season in Boston, the Canucks opted to start Cory Schneider in net; fans in Boston nevertheless derisively chanted Luongo’s name in what was a spirited affair at the Garden.
And since the 2011 Finals, Luongo owns a record of 4-7-2 against the Bruins. He’s 127-86-34 against everybody else.
But on Thursday night, the Panthers desperately need him to be at their best against a Bruins team that buried five goals against James Reimer just five days ago.
The Bruins have plenty to play for as well. Though their spot in the playoffs was long ago secured, they’d much prefer a first-round meeting with the second wild-card team instead of the Toronto Maple Leafs. So earning the No. 1 seed carries importance outside of just looking good on the team résumé. Winning Thursday could be doubly beneficial too — the Bruins could go two points up on Tampa while also eliminating the Panthers, who will be in Boston on Sunday for the season finale. If that game means nothing to Florida but carries importance for Boston, it could work in the Bruins’ favor.
In his most recent outing, Luongo gave up a late goal that could have cost the Panthers a badly needed point in the standings, but he was bailed out by a suspect goaltender interference call. Luongo did stop 45 saves that night, which was his first time playing back-to-back nights all season long. But the reversal of that late goal certainly was no sure thing.
But it worked to keep the Panthers’ playoff hopes — dim as they may be — alive for at least one more game. And it’ll be up to Luongo to stop the Bruins from extinguishing that hope for good.