Panthers notes: Luongo thankful for support from Canucks fans

It was a homecoming for the ages as Roberto Luongo led the Florida Panthers to a 3-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks in an emotional return on Thursday night.

Visiting the Rogers Center for the first time since being shipped to Florida on the eve of the 2014 NHL trade deadline, Luongo received a warm reception from a home crowd that had grown to love his exceptional play and whacky antics during his eight-year stint as a Canuck.

The fans, which were deprived of a proper goodbye when the veteran netminder was abruptly jettisoned from the roster in March, cheered on Luongo the entire night to the point where Thursday’s contest felt more like a final home start rather than a homecoming for the once-embattled goaltender.

"It’s special," Luongo told reporters in Vancouver after the game. "The whole night, they were cheering me on. I’m just really thankful for the support and I’m really happy things went the way they did and we were able to get a big win and, at the same time, enjoy the night."

During a break in play in the first period, the Canucks paid tribute to Luongo, who stopped 32 of 33 shots in victory.

The video, which showed highlights of Luongo’s time with Vancouver, including his charitable work off the ice, brought both the fans and players to their feet in a unified chorus of cheers and stick tapping.

Luongo, clearly emotional in the moment, told reporters that he couldn’t bring himself to watch the moving tribute, but did wave to the fans and tap his chest with his glove hand to show his appreciation.

"I didn’t want to get too emotional and then have to fight," he said.

"The crowd was great. All in all I don’t think I could have asked for anything more. I was hearing the ‘Loos’ when I made big saves, that was nice, it brought back good memories."​

The Canucks’ all-time leader in wins (252) and shutouts (38), Luongo is now 7-2-1 in his last 10 starts for the Panthers. His victory on Thursday placed him in a tie for 11th place on the NHL’s all-time wins list with Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek.

"At the end of the day it’s about winning," said Luongo. "We need as many points as we can right now. Obviously the focus was on winning the hockey game, first and foremost. I think every guy in that lineup really battled hard and did their job. This is pretty much a textbook win for us."

Honored as the first star of the game for his exceptional performance, Luongo was able to take one last skate around his old stomping grounds in front of several thousand fans that remained in the building to give him a proper sendoff.

Just as he had done so many times during his tenure with Vancouver, Luongo tossed his stick to a lucky fan in the stands before applauding the crowd as he made his way back to the tunnel.

With the victory, Luongo not only defeated his 30th different NHL team, but also, maybe, a few demons from his past.

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"It’s nice to receive that acknowledgement," said Luongo. "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’m glad that the positive is remembered more than the negative.

"It’s just closing the chapter. We get to move on now."

WELCOME BACK KOPY

While Luongo’s return to Vancouver deservedly dominated the headlines heading into Thursday night’s matchup, the impact of Tomas Kopecky’s return to the Panthers lineup cannot be understated.

Kopecky, who had sat out the last four games with an undisclosed injury, finished the game with the second-highest ice time among all Panther forwards. Of his 16:05 played, a staggering 5:01 came on the penalty kill as Florida killed off all six of Vancouver’s power plays on the evening.

Paired with center Derek MacKenzie on the team’s top penalty-killing line, Kopecky helped the Panthers survive a 5-on-3 Canucks power play for over 40 seconds to protect Florida’s 3-1 lead midway through the third period.

AMERICAN HOCKEY LEAGUE ALL STARS

The Panthers won’t find out until Saturday afternoon if they’ll have any representation at the 2015 NHL All-Star game in Columbus, OH, however, two of their American Hockey League prospects were honored earlier this week.

San Antonio Rampage forwards Bobby Butler and Drew Shore have both been named to the Western Conference All-Star roster for the 2015 AHL All-Star Classic, which is set to take place Jan. 25-26 in Utica, NY.

This marks the first time in franchise history that San Antonio has had two players selected to the All-Star Classic in the same season.

Butler, 27, will be making his second All-Star Classic appearance. With 14 goals and 17 assists in 31 games for the Rampage this season, Butler is tied for fifth in the league in points (31) and third in the league in goals.

Shore, 23, will also be making his second All-Star Classic appearance after representing the Rampage at the event in 2013. A second-round pick, 44th overall, of Florida in the 2009 draft, Shore has notched nine goals and 21 assists in 33 games for San Antonio, putting him in a tie for sixth in the league in points (30) and sixth in assists.

You can follow Jameson Olive on Twitter @JamesonCoop or email him at JamesonOlive@gmail.com.