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Panthers using school tragedy as motivation: 'We have a mission and a goal'


BOCA RATON, Fla. — Listing off the factors that have helped the Florida Panthers turn around what looked to be another lost season, Dale Tallon points to speed, skill, camaraderie and youthful exuberance.

Those ones are easy to pick out.

But for Tallon, the club's general manager, there's something else to consider — namely Roberto Luongo's emotional speech and the team's response to the massacre at a high school situated about 20 kilometres from their arena.

A former student shot and killed 17 people, many of them teenagers, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14.

The Panthers were playing on the West Coast at the time, but when they returned home to nearby Sunrise, Luongo addressed the crowd at BB&T Center before their game against the Washington Capitals eight days later.

A Parkland resident, the veteran goalie spoke of his love for the area, the organization's heartbreak for the victims, the courage of the heroes who saved lives and the hope he has for the future after seeing the actions of students in the days following the tragedy.

Sitting 12 points adrift of a playoff spot in late January, the Panthers had won two of four road games and seven of 10 overall entering the contest against Washington, pulling themselves back into the post-season conversation.

They secured another win that emotional night and have continued to play for each other and their community ever since.

"It had a lot to do with how the team's adapted and how we've responded," Tallon said of Luongo's speech during a break at this week's GM meetings. 

Heading into Thursday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Panthers were 18-5-1 since Jan. 30, second only to the Nashville Predators (19-3-3).

And since Feb. 14, Florida is 13-4-1, including an 8-0-1 stretch from the game against Washington until March 10.

"We have a mission and a goal," Tallon said. "That's helped us."

The Stoneman Douglas hockey team won the state title less than two weeks after the shooting and were invited by the Panthers to practise on their ice. The Stanley Cup also made a surprise appearance for the young players.

"Some of our staff were closely associated with some of those people (at the school)," Tallon said. "I'm real proud of our organization for stepping up and being helpful and doing all the right things to make it easier for them to deal with this tragedy."

While playing with togetherness and purpose has pushed Florida to within a point of the New Jersey Devils for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, some incredible individual performances have also had a big impact.

No. 1 centre Aleksander Barkov, the second pick in the 2013 draft behind Nathan MacKinnon, sits fifth in league scoring since Feb. 1 with 11 goals and 19 assists in 23 games.

With 26 goals and 47 assists in 70 games, the 22-year-old has been a catalyst for the Panthers and rookie head coach Bob Boughner all season and has added his name to the long list of Hart Trophy candidates as league MVP.

"A wonderful player and a wonderful person," Tallon said. "He's a heart-and-soul guy. He deserves all the credit. He works extremely hard on and off the ice, and does it with a great humility."

Florida defenceman Aaron Ekblad, meanwhile, has mirrored his team's turnaround around after a slow start with six goals and 10 assists in 22 games since Feb. 3.

"He's had a really good second half," Tallon said of the first selection in 2014, who turned 22 last month. "He tried to do a little too much early in the year with (a new coach), trying to please him. (He had) a new contract, big contract. He put some undo pressure on himself.

"But the second half he's been very, very solid."

And then there's Luongo, 39 next month and fighting off the sands of time after missing 26 games earlier this season with a groin injury. He also sat out the final six weeks of 2016-17 because of a hip problem that required surgery the previous summer.

Luongo earned the 76th shutout of his career Monday to tie Tony Esposito and Ed Belfour for ninth on the NHL's all-time list, and sits fourth in wins with 468.

Luongo is 9-3-1 with a .928 save percentage since returning to the lineup, with James Reimer and third-stringer Harri Sateri having held the fort in his absence from Dec. 4 to Feb. 17.

"As far as his work ethic to get back, you've got to give him a lot of credit," Tallon said. "It's incredible."

Much like the Panthers improbable climb up the standings that they hope, at least in a small way, has helped a community in mourning.

"(The massacre was) close to our rink," Tallon said. "It's close to our hearts." 

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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