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Panthers defeat Canucks in Luongo's return

by Kevin Woodley /

VANCOUVER -- For Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo, the first trip back to Vancouver was like going home again.

There were the familiar "Loo" cheers from the Rogers Arena crowd after almost every save, a standing ovation after a first-period video tribute, and, after he was named First Star, Luongo came out to salute the crowd and give his game stick to a young fan.

Luongo made 32 saves to lead the Panthers to a 3-1 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

For Luongo, who spent three days catching up with friends and former teammates, it was just like old times, providing closure after eight seasons in Vancouver ended with a trade to Florida last March.

"It was special, the whole night they were cheering me on," Luongo said. "It's nice to receive that acknowledgement. I played here for eight years. I gave my heart and soul the whole time. There was some ups and downs obviously, but at the end of the day, I am glad the positive is remembered more than the negative."

Daniel Sedin scored on Luongo 3:39 into the game, but the longtime Canucks goalie was perfect after that to move into a tie with Hall of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek for 11th all-time with 389 career wins, 233 of which came with Vancouver.

The crowd rose to its feet to recognize Luongo's feats after a video tribute during a television timeout seven minutes into the first period.

Luongo admitted he was hesitant to watch the video, but as the ovation roared on, he lifted his mask and waved his stick to the fans, tapping his glove over his heart before play resumed.

"I just wanted to give my thanks, my appreciation, for not only the welcome but for the eight years," he said. "There's a lot of memories in those eight years, and it was my way to thank the fans."

Then he did what he did so often in Vancouver: Shut the door on the opponent.

Luongo, who is 4-0-1 in his past five decisions, got his left pad on two point-blank chances for good friend Alexandre Burrows in the opening minute of the second period, then threw out the right pad to rob Linden Vey on a backdoor power-play chance with 1:45 left.

"It was amazing when he stopped the puck and everybody was yelling 'Loo' like our home games," said Aleksander Barkov, who scored the winning goal 7:10 into the second period.

Jonathan Huberdeau had two goals and assisted on Barkov's goal to help Florida (18-11-9) mov into a tie with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference, three points behind the Boston Bruins for the second wild-card spot for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"We knew it was going to be emotional," Huberdeau said. "It's a big game for [Luongo]. The crowd was great. It was great to see the fans loved him here. We are happy to have him in Florida, but it was nice to see that tonight the crowd still loved him and supported him."

Florida shut down Vancouver in the third period, limiting the Canucks to one shot during three straight power plays that included a 5-on-3 opportunity for 40 seconds.

Burrows got a good look, but Luongo slid left to right to stop him. Luongo also made a nice late save against Shawn Matthias, who was part of the Luongo trade.

"From beginning to end the boys really battled hard for me tonight," Luongo said. "It showed we wanted to win for one another."

Ryan Miller made 27 saves for the Canucks (23-13-3), who lost in regulation for the second time in eight games (5-2-1).

"It just seemed like we weren't working hard enough," Vancouver coach Willie Desjardins said. "A lot of times that emotion can take stuff out of you. Like if you've been thinking about it for two days and all of a sudden you've kind of spent all your energy before the game even occurred. I don't know if that's what happened to us, but for whatever reason we didn't seem to have a lot (of energy) the last two periods."

Those final two periods spoiled a pretty good start for the Canucks, who opened the scoring 3:39 into the game after a clearing attempt by former Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell was intercepted and sent down to Henrik Sedin behind the Panthers net. Sedin passed to his brother in the slot, and Daniel Sedin's wrist shot caught Luongo moving to his right as the puck went past his glove on the left.

The Luongo tribute came a little more than three minutes later, and the Panthers pretty much controlled the rest of the game.

"We battled hard," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "After the first six minutes, we played a really good hockey game."

Playing on a new top line with Barkov and Brad Boyes, Huberdeau tied the game midway through the first period with his fifth goal. He was robbed by Miller's left pad on a one-timer from the slot, but Vancouver defenseman Alexander Edler knocked the rebound into his own net as he and Barkov swung at the puck.

"They played really well, competed and battled," Gallant said of the line. "It was good chemistry and the kids really played well."

Barkov gave the Panthers the lead after he won an offensive-zone faceoff back to Huberdeau, who tipped the puck back to rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad at the point for a hard slap shot that Barkov deflected past a screened Miller low on the glove side.

"We jumped right away from the first shift," Barkov said of the new line. "We had a really good game. We know each other well. I know where my line is on the ice and I can pass to them."

Huberdeau made it 3-1 on a breakaway with 3:17 left in the period after getting behind the Vancouver defense when Canucks defenseman Luca Sbisa headed to the bench for a change. Dmitry Kulikov's pass out of his own end hit Huberdeau in stride, and Huberdeau beat Miller with a shot in tight over the glove and in off the seam of the crossbar and post.

"They're developing into great players, and this is just the beginning for us," Luongo said. "We're excited for what is ahead of us here."

Luongo was also excited to get closure on his time in Vancouver, something he said earlier in the week he wasn't looking for, but admitted finding after a game filled with so much emotion.

"It kind of is a little bit," Luongo said. "I haven't been back here since the trade, so not only for myself but I think for the fans as well, it just closes the chapter, and we get to move on now."

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