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Luongo in focus as Panthers visit Canucks
Sunday, January 13, 2019
Latest Line: Florida -115 O/U: 6
 
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He's back.

But will Roberto Luongo return to Vancouver again after Sunday?

That question is on many observers' minds as the 39-year-old Florida Panthers goaltender prepares to suit up against his former Canucks squad in Vancouver for potentially the last time before retiring from the NHL.

But Luongo, who has been hampered by injuries this season, does not know, either.

"It's understandable that people are curious," he told InGoal Magazine when queried about how long he will keep playing. "But to be honest with you, I don't know myself. I'd like to play as long as possible. I still love playing the game."

Luongo yearns for one more chance to win a Stanley Cup after backstopping the Canucks to the 2011 finals. He has made the playoffs with the Panthers just once since his March 2014 trade from the Canucks. He will likely be disappointed again this season, because the Panthers are well out of postseason contention.

Luongo, Vancouver's all-time winningest goaltender, sports a modest 8-10-1 record and .891 save percentage with one shutout. He has been sidelined twice, first by a knee injury and then an undisclosed lower-body problem.

"Right now, I am going through a little bit of a tough time," he said. "So (playing) has been a little bit tougher. But once I get out of (the tough time), I'll get back to where I need to be, and (playing) will be fun."

Sunday's contest has little meaning in the standings or rivalry-wise, because the teams are in different conferences and rarely face each other. But Luongo, a cult-like figure during his time with the Canucks, is generating buzz for a rare Sunday late-afternoon game in Vancouver.

The Panthers have lost five straight games, and the Canucks have gone three contests without a win.

Luongo, who ranks among the NHL's all-time winningest netminders with 479 career wins, still has three years remaining after this season on a 12-year, $64-million contract that he signed with the Canucks. He is earning $3.4 million this season, but his salary will drop to $1.6 million next season and then $1 million in each of the remaining campaigns.

The Canucks have reason to hope he keeps playing until the end of the deal, because they will face millions of dollars in salary-cap recapture penalties if he retires early.

Despite his struggles this season, he has demonstrated that he can play well when he stays healthy. He could get the call for his second straight game, which will be Florida's third in four days following back-to-back losses in Calgary on Friday and Edmonton on Thursday.

Although the Panthers have not generated much excitement lately, captain Aleksander Barkov will pose a challenge for the Canucks.

Barkov has five points in his past five games, but he will also be used largely for shutdown purposes against the Canucks, as he has been against the likes of stars like Edmonton's Connor McDavid and others.

"He's sort of undercover because he's had such a great year and the one thing he does for us probably more than any forward I see is that he's in every crucial defensive situation we have," Panthers coach Bob Boughner told reporters this week. "It probably takes a little bit away from his offense, his numbers are good offensively, but he's that guy that we match up against top lines every night."

Barkov could face a reshuffled Vancouver No. 1 line, which has desperately missed injured star rookie center Elias Pettersson (knee). Winger Josh Leivo, sidelined recently with an undisclosed injury, took part in practice Saturday and appears likely to skate on the top unit, where he has shined at times since joining the Canucks in a trade from Toronto early in the season.

He will skate alongside Brock Boeser and whoever coach Travis Green decides to put at center.

Meanwhile, Green indicated he is looking for a better effort from defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who is slated to skate against his former Panthers squad. Gudbranson, who has not lived up to lofty expectations since his 2016 trade from Florida, has struggled lately while being paired with Ben Hutton.

Green indicated he could adjust his pairings, and a change could result in less playing time for Gudbranson, whose trade from the Panthers was questioned publicly by Luongo.

"We'll see where we go from (Thursday's 4-3 overtime loss to Arizona) as far as the pairings go," Green told reporters.

The Canucks got some good news Saturday as Pettersson resumed skating for the first time following his injury in Montreal during a recent six-game road trip. But Pettersson, who skated without teammates, will still be out for a while.

In the meantime, winger Sven Baertschi is helping to pick up some of the offensive slack. Baertschi scored twice against Arizona and now has five points in six games since returning from a concussion that sidelined him for 30 contests.

"It was good to see him get on the (scoresheet) and get a couple goals," said Green.

The coach said Baertschi has responded to video sessions he conducted with him.

"I wanted him to be better than he was," said Green.

Baertschi is also happy about his recent play.

"It's good to be back, six games now," he told reporters. "Each game, I'm starting to feel better and better."

--Field Level Media