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Panthers' Luongo back in Vancouver to face Canucks

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com

VANCOUVER -- Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo isn't sure what to expect from Vancouver Canucks fans when he returns for the first time to play his old team on Thursday.

With Luongo, it's often hard to tell the cheers from jeers anyway.

"Loos and boos all sound the same, so I won't be able to tell the difference," Luongo said. "Hopefully it's good, but that's not up to me."

Neither was his departure from Vancouver, at least not entirely.

Roberto Luongo
Roberto Luongo
Goalie - FLA
RECORD: 15-7-7
GAA: 2.28 | SVP: .924
Despite requesting a trade after losing the No. 1 job to Cory Schneider late in the 2011-12 season and enduring a two-year soap opera that followed, Luongo had come around on staying in Vancouver, maybe even finishing his career with the Canucks after Schneider was traded to the New Jersey Devils at the 2013 NHL Draft. He was the No. 1 again, but after returning from the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he watched Eddie Lack play three straight games, including the Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic at BC Place.

Luongo again requested a trade and two days later got it.

"There's no hiding it, I did want to play that game," Luongo said of the outdoor Heritage Classic. "That goes without saying, and if I would have played I probably would maybe still be here. Who knows?"

Instead, after setting Canucks records for wins (233) and shutouts (35) during eight seasons in Vancouver, Luongo went back to Florida in a trade for forward Shawn Matthias and goaltender prospect Jacob Markstrom.

Luongo returned to Vancouver in the summer to take part in a Hockey Canada gala celebrating the 2014 Olympic gold medal and to receive his championship ring. But he's been looking forward to this week all season, with the Panthers flying in Sunday night and three full days to catch up with old friends before playing some of them Thursday.

Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows, who was one of many former teammates to have lunch with Luongo on Monday, thought it might provide Luongo with "a close to the chapter in Vancouver." But the goalie isn't looking at it that way.

"Not for me," Luongo said. "I think maybe for fans, [media] maybe. I don't know. I've moved on."

Luongo moved on as the greatest goaltender in Canucks history after winning six division titles, two Presidents' Trophies and a William Jennings Trophy. He was a finalist for the Hart Trophy once and Vezina Trophy twice, won gold with Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and helped the Canucks to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Boston Bruins.

He listed the latter as his only regret in Vancouver.

"I am just disappointed I wasn't able to bring a Cup here," he said. "This market wants one more than anything, and if anything that's the main thing I am disappointed about."

Luongo also moved on in a better frame of mind than he had during his early years in Vancouver, in part because of the failures. Learning how to handle the pressure and spotlight that came with playing in a hockey-crazed city took time. But it says something that Luongo, who endured a lot of early criticism from Canucks fans, was more popular after requesting the trade in 2012, in part because his @strombone1 Twitter account allowed him to reveal his sense of humor.

"It was important," Luongo said. "It did feel good for people to finally see what kind of person I am and the way I am around the guys."

It's just too bad it didn't happen sooner.

"I kind of figured that whole thing out towards the tail end of my stay here," he said. "It's kind of a shame that's the way it happened."

Luongo said he is better for having gone through it.

"Sometimes you have to go through adversity to understand and do the right things," he said. "My whole perspective on a lot of stuff has changed over the last couple of years and how I handle things."

New Panthers captain Willie Mitchell, who arrived with Luongo in Vancouver in 2006 and played four seasons with him here, said that change is manifesting itself in Luongo's play this season.

"He went through a lot," Mitchell said. "I know Roberto well and I think he was just trying to appease a lot of people instead of being himself, and now in comfortable surroundings he is being himself and we see that in his performance. He's been one of the best in the League."

Already one of the top goalies all-time with a .919 career save percentage (ranked fourth among goalies to play more than 250 NHL games), Luongo is 15-7-7 with a .924 save percentage behind a young Panthers team this season.

"Seriously, it's some of the best goaltending I've seen," said Mitchell, who won the Stanley Cup twice with Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings. "He's been that good for us every night and he's just being himself down there and doesn't have the distractions."

Dealing with them in Vancouver helped Luongo.

"Anyone who knows him knows he wants to win more than anyone, and sometimes you can care too much," Mitchell said. "He's that guy, but maybe going through something like that, you know what, it's life, you don't have control of it, you just make the best of it. And I think that probably made him a better person and goaltender for it."

A win against the Canucks on Thursday would be Luongo's 389th, tying him with Dominik Hasek for 11th on the all-time list. But just as he wasn't reading too much into his return to Vancouver, Luongo will wait until he retires before worrying about his place in the game.

As for his time in Vancouver, he only talks about the good points.

"The positives definitely outweigh the few negative things so for me I have nothing but good things to say," he said. "It was great, I enjoyed it and that's why I am really excited to be here this week."

And no matter how Vancouver fans great him Thursday, Luongo's former teammates will also remember his time in the city fondly.

"People are going to say, 'Oh this game he could have been better, or this playoffs,' but it's a team game," Burrows said. "He wanted to do so well and brought us to a lot of division titles, Presidents' Trophies, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup. He was great for us."

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