PANTHERS (17-11-9) at CANUCKS (23-12-3)
TV: FS-F, SNP
VANCOUVER -- Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo still isn't sure how the Vancouver Canucks crowd will welcome him back Thursday, but don't be surprised if he gets caught up in the first period tribute the Canucks have planned for their former star.
Luongo will be playing his first game in Vancouver since being traded to Panthers on March 4 after nearly eight seasons with the Canucks, where Luongo set franchise records for wins (233) and shutouts (65).
"It's going to be emotional," Luongo said of the tribute. "I'm flattered they would do that. I told them it wasn't necessary but I am happy there was some sort of recognition. It's nice for both sides I think.
"All in all it was a great run," Luongo said.
Luongo ranks in the top 10 in the NHL with a .924 save percentage and a 2.28 goals-against average, but said the drama of the final two years in Vancouver made him a better goalie and person.
That includes handling the emotion of his return.
"I've just evolved as a person dealing with all that," he said. "It really helped the way I approach the game mentally now."
Canucks goaltender Ryan Miller can relate to those emotions. After 11 seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, Miller was traded to the St. Louis Blues late last season before signing as a free agent with Vancouver.
"Anytime you have strong ties to the city, it's emotional," said Miller, who will start after watching Eddie Lack defeat the New York Islanders on Tuesday. "It was for me for sure."
With Luongo playing so well, the game could have put the spotlight on Miller's early-season struggles adjusting to playing in Vancouver, but he is 4-1-1 with a .950 save percentage in his past six games.
"This is his journey and I've got my own thing going on," Miller said. "There will be a little bit of a side story but most guys have been through this before, and you just have to prepare and be ready to go out there and play."
Right wing Radim Vrbata, who leads the Canucks with 16 goals, returns after missing the game Tuesday against the Islanders with the flu and is expected to start on a new-look second line. Third-line center Brad Richardson will play after getting hit in the groin with a shot and leaving in the second period against the Islanders on Tuesday.
"Blocked a shot in the wrong spot," Richardson said.
The Panthers will get forwards Tomas Fleischmann and Tomas Kopecky back from injuries, but defenseman Erik Gudbranson is still out. Kopecky missed four games. Fleischmann and Gudbranson have been out for the past two games.
Here are the projected lineups:
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Brad Boyes
Jussi Jokinen - Nick Bjugstad - Jimmy Hayes
Sean Bergenheim - Dave Bolland - Tomas Fleischmann
Scottie Upshall - Derek MacKenzie - Tomas Kopecky
Willie Mitchell – Dmitry Kulikov
Brian Campbell – Aaron Ekblad
Dylan Olsen – Shane O'Brien
Scratched: Vincent Trocheck, Brandon Pirri
Injured: Erik Gudbranson (upper body), Shawn Thornton (groin)
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Chris Higgins - Nick Bonino - Radim Vrbata
Shawn Matthias - Brad Richardson - Zack Kassian
Derek Dorsett - Bo Horvat - Jannik Hansen
Alexander Edler - Christopher Tanev
Ryan Stanton – Kevin Bieksa
Luca Sbisa - Yannick Weber
Scratched: Linden Vey, Frank Corrado
Injured: Dan Hamhuis (lower body)
Status report: Hamhuis skated Thursday for the first time since tearing his groin on Nov. 20. He plans to practice with the team on Friday and hopes to play on the upcoming five-game road trip. Hamhuis was originally expected to be out another month. "The goal is to play in a couple games before the break," Hamhuis said. "With a groin tear it's typically a little bit longer. Our medical team has done a great job getting me back, starting right from the opinions on whether to do surgery or not. We wrestled with that for the first little bit and were comfortable with decision not to get surgery and from there we moved in a rehab program that got me back sooner."
Who's hot: Vrbata has scored a goal in each of his past three games, but is expected be moved off the top line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin at even strength and play on a second unit with Bonino and Higgins. … Bjugstad has two goals and an assist in his past two games, and three goals and five points in his last five after going pointless in the previous five.