Canucks-Panthers Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated January 08, 2012
After watching a Vancouver Canucks win from the bench in perhaps his least favorite NHL arena, Roberto Luongo figures to be back in net Monday night in a far less threatening venue. Luongo makes a rare return to the building where he spent five seasons as the Florida Panthers' netminder, looking to extend his former club's slump and his current team's surge. The Canucks (26-13-3) began their four-game road trip Saturday in Boston, where Luongo struggled mightily during last season's Stanley Cup finals en route to a seven-game defeat. He was taunted even though backup Cory Schneider, a Boston-area native, got the start as Vancouver defeated the Bruins 4-3 in a chippy first meeting since the championship series. The Canucks took advantage of an undisciplined Boston club, going 4 for 11 on the power play to boost their league-leading percentage to 24.4. "I think it makes a statement to the rest of the league that we're back and we're looking forward to getting back to where we were," Schneider said. Vancouver has gotten to the top of the Western Conference standings thanks to a 17-4-2 stretch, buoyed in part by Luongo's strong play. The veteran is 10-2-2 with a 1.76 goals-against average and two shutouts in 14 starts since returning from injury in early December. He joined the Canucks following a 2006 trade with Florida, where Luongo had blossomed into a star. He remains the Panthers' all-time leader in wins (108), shutouts (26) and saves. In four games against them since the trade, he's 3-0-1 with a 1.68 GAA, including a 31-save shutout in his last visit to Sunrise, Fla., on Feb. 11, 2010. Vancouver has not lost in regulation to Florida since Oct. 20, 1999, going 8-0-1 with two ties since. The Panthers (20-13-8) never made the playoffs with Luongo and still haven't since 2000, although they've appeared primed to end that drought throughout much of their surprising first half. They still lead the Southeast Division, but their advantage has dwindled to three points over Winnipeg and four over Washington following a 2-4-2 stretch during which they've been outscored 31-17. Florida was tied midway through the third period Friday in New Jersey before Ilya Kovalchuk scored, and two Devils empty-netters sent first-year coach Kevin Dineen's club to a 5-2 defeat. "I thought we played good, but we had to play great to put them away," defenseman Mike Weaver said. "Every point is so vital now. We can't be giving games away like that in the third period." The Panthers are trying to make do without starting goalie Jose Theodore, who's expected to miss a couple of weeks with a knee injury. While Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom have taken over netminding duties, the club could use more offense from leading scorer Kris Versteeg, who has gone a season-high four straight games without a point. These teams have been frequent trade partners in recent years, following the Luongo deal with separate transactions that sent defenseman Keith Ballard and forward Chris Higgins from Florida to Vancouver. This will their first meeting since they swung a four-player trade Oct. 22, which featured David Booth going to the Canucks and Mikael Samuelsson to the Panthers. Booth, however, hasn't played since Dec. 6 due to a knee injury. Samuelsson has also missed extended time with injuries this season, although he returned last week and posted three points in two games. It's unclear if defenseman Sami Salo will be available for the Canucks after taking a low hit from Boston's Brad Marchand, who was given a game misconduct for clipping.
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