The foundering Vancouver Canucks hope Roberto Luongo's return will help them close January on a positive note. Their first visit to Tampa Bay in more than five years might help them do just that.
Luongo is expected to be back in net for the Canucks when they open a four-game road trip Thursday night, facing a last-place Lightning team to which they have not lost in nearly a decade.
Vancouver (26-20-5) is 4-6-1 this month, losing five of its last six games and failing to win in regulation in 10 games since beating the New York Rangers 3-0 on Jan. 3.
The Canucks hope Luongo can provide a lift after he spent a week with his pregnant wife at their offseason home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., even though the baby is not due until April. The veteran goaltender opted to skip the All-Star game on Sunday despite being voted in by the fans, and also received permission to miss Vancouver's 4-3 loss to Dallas on Tuesday.
Luongo hasn't played since making 26 saves and two more in the shootout to help the Canucks to a 3-2 win over St. Louis on Jan. 23. He lost his previous four starts, posting a 3.00 goals-against average.
Vancouver struggled without him Tuesday as backup Curtis Sanford was pulled early in the second period for allowing two goals on 10 shots. Drew MacIntyre didn't fare much better in relief, giving up two goals on nine shots.
Luongo is 5-1-0 with a 2.46 GAA in his last six starts against the Lightning (20-26-5), including a 16-save performance in a 5-1 home win on March 6 in the teams' most recent meeting.
That victory was Vancouver's third in a row against Tampa Bay, including its last visit to the St. Pete Times Forum on Nov. 29, 2002 - a 5-3 win. The Canucks are unbeaten in the last seven meetings, posting five wins and two ties since a 3-2 loss at Tampa on Oct. 25, 1998.
Vancouver has lost just three times in 19 all-time games against the Lightning, who are last in the Eastern Conference.
Tampa Bay is looking to avoid losing its third consecutive game after being defeated 4-2 by Buffalo on Tuesday, failing to rally from a four-goal deficit in the second period.
"It's disappointing, but the energy we had is something we're going to have to keep bringing here down the stretch," Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis said.
Tampa Bay could use some better goaltending from Johan Holmqvist. He had 22 saves against the Sabres after being pulled in an 8-4 loss to Ottawa last Thursday for allowing three goals on 14 shots in the opening period. The two performances have come after Holmqvist posted a personal four-game winning streak with a 1.50 GAA and two shutouts.
One reason Tampa has struggled against the Canucks is because Vincent Lecavalier has been ineffective against them. The veteran center is second in the league this season with 67 points, but has only two goals and two assists in seven career games versus Vancouver.