VANCOUVER - Roberto Luongo looked up at the scoreboard and tapped his heart to acknowledge the crowd after a video tribute honouring his eight years with Vancouver Canucks.
Then it was back to business.
The veteran goalie stopped 32 shots in his return to a city where he experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows on Thursday as the Florida Panthers defeated the Canucks 3-1.
"I just wanted to give my thanks, my appreciation for not only the welcome, but for the eight years," Luongo said of the first-period salute. "There's a lot of memories in those eight years and it was just my way to thank the fans."
Luongo's career in Vancouver was a well-documented rollercoaster — including a gold-medal victory for Canada at the 2010 Olympics, losing Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup final and a goalie circus that led to his eventual exit — but it was like old times on this night as fans rekindled the familiar "Loo" chant every time he touched the puck and cheered him after he was named the game's first star.
"It's nice to receive that acknowledgment," Luongo told a huge throng of reporters in the hallway outside the locker-rooms. "I gave my heart and soul the whole time. There was some ups and downs obviously, but at the end of the day I am glad the positive is remembered more than the negative."
Jonathan Huberdeau, with two goals and an assist, and Aleksander Barkov scored for the Panthers (18-11-9), who are in a surprising hunt for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
In his time with the Canucks, Luongo won at least 30 games six times — and 40 or more twice — before being abruptly traded back to Florida last March after getting benched in the Heritage Classic. The Panthers had been in Vancouver all week, and the 35-year-old said Thursday brought a level of closure.
"It kind of is a little bit," said Luongo. "I haven't been back here since the trade so not only for myself, but I think for the fans as well it just closes the chapter and we get to move on now."
Somewhat lost in the mix of the emotion was the fact Luongo picked up the 389th victory of his career to tie Dominik Hasek for 11th on the all-time goalie wins list. He also beat the Canucks for the first time to give him at least one victory against all 30 NHL teams.
"The crowd was great. All in all I don't think I could have asked for anything more," said Luongo. "I was hearing the Loos when I made big saves, that was nice, it brought back good memories."
Daniel Sedin opened the scoring in the first for the Canucks (23-13-3), who started brightly before fading over the final two periods in what can only be described as a disappointing effort.
"I thought our first was pretty good, but our second we just lost everything," said Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin. "We stopped playing, our shifts were too long, we didn't come out and do proper break outs.
"It was far from good enough."
Ryan Miller — who signed as a free agent in the off-season to replace Luongo as the Canucks' No. 1 goalie — made 27 saves in taking the loss.
"They had a good forecheck pressure in the second period," said Miller. "We need to be able to respond to that, find a way to change it up, but they pinched hard. (We've) got to have a better response."
Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins preaches consistency and was at a loss as to why his team lacked it — as well as much energy — over the final 40 minutes in a game that had so much hype surrounding Luongo's return.
"It was pretty disappointing," said Desjardins. "I just don't think there's any reason you can't play a certain way. We didn't have a good second period. We got ourselves behind and they defend well."
Tied 1-1 after 20 minutes, the Panthers grabbed their first lead at 7:10 of the second when Barkov scored his fourth of the season on a slick deflection off a point shot from rookie defenceman Aaron Ekblad.
Luongo made a nice pad save on Vancouver forward Shawn Matthias — one of the players acquired the trade with Florida — off the rush a few minutes later, but a mistake by the Canucks late in the period ensured the Panthers took a 3-1 lead to the locker-room.
Florida defenceman Dmitry Kulikov caught Vancouver on a bad change and sprung a stretch pass to Huberdeau, who moved in alone on Miller and made no mistake high over the glove for his sixth at 16:43.
"We knew it was going to be emotional," said Huberdeau. "It's a big game for (Luongo). The crowd was great. It was great to see a player that the fans loved. We are happy to have him in Florida, but it was nice to see the crowd still loved him and supported him."
After the Panthers had a couple chances to stretch their advantage early in the third against Miller, Luongo stopped Matthias again moments later with a great pad save in tight.
The Canucks got a 5-on-3 power play for 40 seconds with 7:50 to go after Florida's David Bolland was assessed a double minor for high sticking with the Panthers already down a man, but Vancouver was unable to get anything going except for a late chance from Alexandre Burrows.
"Right off, start of period they had a couple whacks at it," said Luongo "There's always key moments in a game and that might have been one of them, but we scored some big goals in the second, made some big plays and then I thought we played a really good third period."
As the clock wound down, some of the "Loos" for Luongo at Rogers Arena turned to a couple of boos directed at the home side.
"We've got to take pride in showing up each and every night," said Henrik Sedin. "It's not going to be perfect every night, but at least we've got to see that we're trying and we're there and we're focused. That wasn't the case tonight."
Vancouver started off strong and took the lead at 3:39 of the first period when Daniel Sedin beat Luongo for his ninth of the season up high off a feed from his brother Henrik.
Luongo snagged a hard shot from Alexander Edler a few minutes later to keep the deficit at one before his teammates evened the score on a strange one at 9:33.
Henrik Sedin attempted to clear the puck from behind his own net, but it pinged its way to Huberdeau in the slot. Miller made a great save on the first shot, but the puck trickled over the line after a scramble. Barkov was initially given credit, but replays showed that Edler put it in his own net to hand Huberdeau his fifth of the campaign.
"These guys have been playing hard all year and they are really developing into great players and this is just the beginning for us," said Luongo. "I think we're excited for what is ahead of us here. We just want to keep growing and staying in the hunt and try to hopefully get a spot in the playoffs."
Notes: Canucks forward Chris Higgins missed the game with an illness, which meant Linden Vey dressed for the second straight night after subbing in for Radim Vrbata (flu) on Tuesday. ... The Canucks play the finale of their five-game homestand on Saturday night against the Calgary Flames. ... The Panthers visit Calgary on Friday. ... Canucks defenceman Dan Hamhuis skated on Thursday morning and said he expects to practice Friday. He has been out with a torn groin after a non-contact play early in Vancouver's game on Nov. 20. Hamhuis hopes to be back in the lineup before the all-star break.
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