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Luongo makes 34 saves as Panthers blank Thrashers

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) -- Roberto Luongo's long break from hockey
clearly didn't hurt his form.

Luongo made 34 saves for his 24th career shutout, and Nathan
Horton and Lucas Krajicek scored in the third period to lift the
Florida Panthers to a 2-0 season-opening victory over the Atlanta
Thrashers on Wednesday night.

Luongo, who had seven shutouts and a league-record 2,303 saves
during the NHL's pre-lockout season of 2003-04, made 10 stops
during a 5-minute shorthanded stretch during the third period,
holding up a 1-0 lead and ensuring coach Jacques Martin's debut on
the Panthers' bench was a winning one.

"He's the best goalie in the league right now," Panthers
captain Olli Jokinen said. "He's been top three in the past few
years and he showed everyone tonight that he's the top one. With a
goalie like him, we have a chance to win every night. And finally,
he's got a team in front of him that can win the games."

Martin became the seventh straight Panthers' coach to win his
debut; four of the last five new Florida coaches have been greeted
with a shutout.

"Goaltending is a key in this business," Martin said. "And a
lot of times you're going to win with goaltending and specialty
teams. If you win the specialty team part of a game, you really
give yourself a great chance."

The Thrashers -- who lost starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen after
one period with a groin injury, a different one than what bothered
him for much of training camp -- were without their best sniper.
Ilya Kovalchuk, who shared the NHL lead with 41 goals in 2003-04,
remains a holdout and is threatening to play in his native Russia.

"We have a lot of great players, but he's not here right now,"
Thrashers captain Scott Mellanby said. "We believe we have a good
team with what we have."

Horton intercepted Mike Dunham's clearing pass along the right
wing boards, then sent a quick shot deflecting off the Thrashers'
goalie and into the net to break a scoreless tie 1:08 into the
third.

"It hit the inside of my glove and squeaked through," Dunham
said. "That's a goal I have to have. No question about it."

But the Panthers gave Atlanta a great opportunity to tie the
game; defenseman Branislav Mezei drew a 5-minute major and a game
misconduct for boarding with 15:26 left, and Sean Hill was called
for hooking 15 seconds later to give the Thrashers a two-man
advantage.

Didn't matter. Luongo made six saves, stoning Marian Hossa and
Vyacheslav Kozlov during the 5-on-3, and stopped four more while
the Panthers killed off the rest of Mezei's penalty.

"It was huge. We had just taken the lead and we had to come up
with a big kill," Luongo said. "And the boys did a good job."

With 3:34 left, Krajicek took a cross-ice pass from Kristian
Huselius and sent a wrist shot past Dunham for a power-play goal.

Hockey's new scoring friendly rules -- including bigger offensive
zones and allowing two-line breakout passes over the center line --
were in effect. But teams were scoreless for the first 41 minutes,
combining for only 34 shots and few quality scoring chances through
the first two periods.

And when Atlanta tried to get rolling, Luongo was at his best.

"He was the dominant factor in this game, no doubt," Atlanta
coach Bob Hartley said. "The one thing we could have done was get
in front of him better. But we moved the puck well, made some great
decisions. But we couldn't finish."

Game notes
Daniel Rodriguez, the former New York police officer who
gained widespread acclaim following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks
for his singing of "God Bless America," performed the national
anthem. ... Florida won a season opener for the fifth time in 12
chances; Atlanta has lost four of six openers. ... Huselius' first
shot was stopped by Dunham with 8:36 left in the second; Huselius
had scored on the opening shot in his previous three seasons. ...
The Panthers traded D Filip Novak to Ottawa on Wednesday for a
conditional sixth-round draft pick in 2007.