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Panthers blank Sabres in Luongo's return

by Alain Poupart

SUNRISE, Fla. -- From the warm reception to the periodic chants of "Loooouuu" throughout the game to the outcome, Roberto Luongo couldn't have scripted his return to the Florida Panthers any better.

In his first start since being traded from the Vancouver Canucks back to the Panthers, Luongo made 25 saves to extend his franchise record for shutouts and Florida beat the Buffalo Sabres 2-0 at BB&T?Center on Friday night.

"I?just wanted to have a good game," Luongo said after the game while wearing the traditional Randy "Macho Man" Savage straw hats handed out by teammates. "I thought the boys played really hard for 60 minutes. As soon as the other team maybe generated a little bit of something, we came right back and answered the bell. Kudos to all the guys in front of me tonight. It was really a team effort."

The shutout was the fourth of the season for Luongo, but the first for the Panthers in almost two years. The last one came on April 21, 2012, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals when Jose Theodore made 30 saves in a 3-0 victory against the New Jersey Devils. Florida's last regular-season shutout was March 11, 2012, when Theodore made 34 saves in a 2-0 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes.

The shutout was the 66th of Luongo's career, his 27th with the Panthers and his first with Florida since Feb. 7, 2006, when he made 44 saves in a 5-0 victory against the Washington Capitals.

"He certainly did a great job," interim coach Peter Horachek said. "When you have to go periods of time without shots, that's real difficult. He's a pro, he knows how to stay focused and he knows how to settle things down. When there were spurts of chances going the other way, there were not a lot of rebounds. He controls the rebounds, he controlled the situation and he gave everybody a pause that allowed them to feel confident about the situation."

Luongo's teammates did their best to make things as easy as possible on him, outshooting Buffalo 44-25. It was the first time in seven games the Panthers allowed fewer than 32 shots.

Luongo did have to make a couple of big saves, most notably on a rebound against Tyler Ennis late in the second period when he was sprawled and appeared to stop the puck with the shaft of his goalie stick. Luongo also came up with a nice pad save on Cody Hodgson with just over a minute left in regulation.

"It was nice," Panthers captain Ed Jovanovski said. "I???know first-hand from speaking to him in the summertime how bad he wanted to come back to Florida and for him to get that opportunity. We as an organization are obviously excited to have him. For him, he's excited. He's rejuvenated. He wants to go out there and play well and give this team kind of that feel-good heading into next year."

Luongo outdueled Michal Neuvirth, making his first start for Buffalo since being acquired in a trade with the Washington Capitals on Wednesday. Neuvirth made 42 saves, including one against Sean Bergenheim on a penalty shot in the second period.

"I was very impressed with Michal," Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. "He was very calm, his rebound control was solid, he had great positions all night."

Neuvirth had last played on Feb. 4 when he stopped 27 of 28 saves for Washington in a 1-0 loss against the New York Islanders.

He certainly didn't show any rust, coming up with big save after big save. He was particularly tough on Bergenheim, who finished with 12 shots on goals, two shy of the Panthers' single-game record.

"I haven't played for a while," Neuvirth said. "This was my first time with a new team. For sure I was nervous. I've been practicing hard, but a game is a different story."

Jesse Winchester and Dmitry Kulikov scored power-play goals for the Panthers, who won for the third time in 11 games. It marked the first time since Dec. 3 and the third time this season that the Panthers scored two power-play goals in the same game.

Buffalo came into the game with the worst record in the NHL?????????but was 4-1-0 since play resumed after the break for the Sochi Olympics. However, the Sabres were playing for the second consecutive night and were shorthanded after losing forwards Torrey Mitchell, Zemgus Girgensons and Chris Stewart to injuries in a 3-1 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night.

Buffalo was also without center Cory Conacher, who was claimed off waivers from the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday but couldn't join the Sabres in time because of immigration issues.

Against the Panthers, the Sabres lost forward Marcus Foligno only 6:16 into the game when he was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct for boarding Panthers center Brandon Pirri. Defenseman Alexander Sulzer didn't play in the last two periods because of a lower-body injury that Nolan said likely will keep him out of the lineup one to two weeks.

Winchester opened the scoring at 11:11 of the first period with five seconds left in Foligno's major penalty. Winchester scored with a quick shot from the slot after a spectacular no-look, cross-ice pass by Scottie Upshall.

"They did a good of killing [the penalty]," Winchester said. "We had our fair share of chances, though. We don't have to think about that anymore luckily. We'll take it and move on. I?????????didn't even know how I?????????got so open, but he just fed it to me. I?????????missed my shot a little bit. I put it in the direction I?????????wanted to, but it kind of rolled. It found the back anyway. We'll take it, too."

Kulikov made it 2-0 at 4:04 of the third period, seconds after Brad Boyes hit the post from the front of the net. The puck found its way back to the point, and Kulikov beat Neuvirth with a slap shot from beyond the left circle.

Emergency call-ups Luke Adam and Nicolas Deslauriers both suited up for the Sabres. Deslauriers, acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday, made his NHL?????????debut.

Also making his NHL?????????debut was Panthers center Vincent Trocheck, who was named the Ontario Hockey League's most outstanding player last season after leading the OHL?????????in scoring and was leading the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League in scoring before he was called up on Wednesday.

Deslauriers played 15:08 and had four shots on goals, while Trocheck played 17:35 and finished with three shots.

This night, though, was mostly about Luongo.

"He was pretty vocal between periods, surprising for a goalie to do that," Jovanovski said. "It was good to hear him. An all-around good night for him. I'm proud of him."

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