Like old times: Roberto Luongo earns shutout in return to Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. — Maybe, in the end, the worst trade in Florida Panthers history will have been for the best.

Eight years after being shipped as far away as possible from South Florida, goaltender Roberto Luongo returned home, changed for the better and picked up right where he left off.

”It’s crazy. It doesn’t feel like it has been eight years already,” Luongo told FOX Sports Florida. ”But a lot of things have happened during that time. I think I am a better person, a better goalie, stronger mentally.”

The goaltender, who owns nearly every franchise record, tacked on another win and shutout to his Panthers legacy with a 25-save performance in Florida’s 2-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.

It was the first shutout seen here in just under two years, a span of 124 regular season games.

For Luongo, Friday night was as much about getting acquainted with Florida as letting it sink in that his long exile had come to an end.

He showed extra jump taking to the ice for warmups, greeted by fans with signs along the glass welcoming him back.

”Once a Panther, always a Panther,” one read.

Luongo probably knew that, though.

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While away in Vancouver, Luongo’s recognizable ‘Pink Panther’ mask sat in storage. He wasted no time digging it out for Friday’s game.

”I know firsthand from speaking to him in the summertime how badly he wanted to come back to Florida,” Panthers captain Ed Jovanovski said. ”For him to get that opportunity, we as an organization are excited to have him.”

Not that Luongo’s time in Vancouver was a wholly painful experience.

The goalie turned the Canucks into a Stanley Cup contender, leading them to Game 7 in 2011. He won a pair of Olympic gold medals with Team Canada, finished as a Vezina Trophy finalist twice and appeared in three All-Star Games. He cemented his status as an elite goaltender.

But there were also tumultuous times, in which Luongo could never be sure of where he fit into the Canucks’ plans. Chased out of town in words more time than he could probably count, Luongo learned to ignore the distraction. And briefly accepted the idea he may never return to Florida.

”It’s been a life-altering week,” Luongo said. ”I was not expecting to get traded, especially at the deadline. I really started to get back in the groove in (Vancouver), started settling in. And wouldn’t you know it, when you least expect it, something happened.”

Even Panthers fans needed time to re-acquaint themselves with old traditions. Not until late into the second period did they produce a full-throated ”Louuuu” cheer.

Buffalo’s Tyler Ennis squeezed behind the Panthers defense and fired a point-blank shot. Luongo slid along the ice, sprawled at the last minute and came up with a kick save while on his belly to preserve the one-goal lead.

By the end of the third period, when he faced 12 shots, the cheers rained down after every save.

And when the final buzzer signaled the Panthers victory, fans showered him with rats — a tradition long forgotten during Luongo’s first stint in Florida.

”That wasn’t even here when I was here,” Luongo said. ”It’s nice to see that tradition.”

A lot has changed since Luongo stepped off the ice here on April 11, 2006. Three sets of owners. Three general managers. Three coaches. Countless players, strategies and failed rebuilding efforts.

It has taken eight long years for the Panthers and Luongo to each find their compass. But finally, they’ve found it.

”I’m happy to be back home and really happy that this team is headed in the right direction,” Luongo said. ”At the end of the day, that was more important than anything else.”

You can follow Erin Brown on Twitter @rinkside or email her at erinbrownfla@gmail.com.