|Date of game: 3/7/2014
Buffalo Sabres (19-35-8) at Florida Panthers (23-32-7), 7:30 p.m. (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - A homecoming many years in the making will unfold in Sunrise on Friday evening when Roberto Luongo begins his second stint as a member of the Florida Panthers in a matchup with the Buffalo Sabres.
The rebuilding Panthers pulled off a big move on Tuesday one day before the league's trade deadline, sending young netminder Jacob Markstrom and forward Shawn Matthias to the Vancouver Canucks for Luongo and forward prospect Steven Anthony.
Hours later, the Panthers lost for the fifth time in six games when they fell 4-1 to the Boston Bruins, but are hoping to turn things around in the near future under Luongo.
The 34-year-old was the fourth overall pick of the 1997 draft by the New York Islanders before getting dealt to the Panthers on June 24, 2000. Luongo played five seasons in Florida, becoming the franchise's all-time leader in wins (108), shutouts (26) and games played (317) while also holding a number of single-season records.
A three-time All-Star, Luongo went 19-16-6 with a 2.38 goals against average and .917 save percentage in 42 games this season with the Canucks, but also found himself sharing time in net for a second campaign in a row. Last season, Luongo began to lose starts to Cory Schneider, who Vancouver surprisingly traded to the New Jersey Devils during the most recent draft.
This season, Eddie Lack had taken some starts from Luongo, including one during last weekend's Heritage Classic.
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon called Luongo one of the elite players in the world and was thankful to be able to make this type of move for the franchise.
"We got great support from ownership. We said that talk is cheap, actions speak louder than words. This is the beginning of something special for this Florida Panthers organization, having Roberto back in the fold and back here in Florida where he belongs," added Tallon on Wednesday. "The franchise is excited about it. We're going to grow together and win many championships, starting today."
Despite Tallon's words, the playoffs don't even seem to be a possibility this season. Florida's 53 points are ahead of only the Sabres' 44 in the Eastern Conference.
However, Luongo is signed through 2021-22 and didn't return to Florida for the scenery.
"Obviously, a lot of people think I want to come here and ride into the sunset, but that's not what it's all about," he said. "I'm here to win. I want to bring this team back into the playoffs and I think with new ownership and the promises they made it's a good start. Hopefully we can bring some guys in and help the young guys move along and be a contender."
The acquisition of Luongo briefly made him and Tim Thomas teammates. The two went head-to-head in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, when Thomas' Bruins got the better of Luongo and the Canucks in seven games, but Thomas was dealt to the Dallas Stars on Wednesday.
Florida received netminder Dan Ellis in exchange to serve as Luongo's backup.
The Panthers will play three straight and five of their next six at home starting tonight versus the Sabres, who Luongo is 9-6-2 against lifetime with a 2.04 GAA.
The Sabres are a week removed from their own shakeup in net, having traded Ryan Miller to the St. Louis Blues last Friday. One of the players they got in return was netminder Jaroslav Halak, but he was flipped to the Washington Capitals prior to Wednesday's trade deadline for defenseman Rostislav Klesla and goalie Michal Neuvirth.
Neuvirth is expected to make his Buffalo debut tonight and is 3-3-1 with a 2.77 GAA in his career versus the Panthers.
Jhonas Enroth had handled the workload in net since Miller departed and came up with 43 saves in last night's 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Marcus Foligno, Tyler Myers and Cody Hodgson all scored and had an assist in the Sabres' fourth victory in five games.
"When we get good goaltending, we have a chance to win," Buffalo interim head coach Ted Nolan said.
Nolan's club did lose a pair of forwards to injury in the game. Zemgus Girgensons did not return for the third period due to a lower-body injury, while Chris Stewart, recently acquired from the Blues, exited in the final frame after colliding with Lightning goaltender Anders Lindback.
Nolan will have the option of inserting forward Cory Conacher into the lineup. He joined the club on Thursday, one day after being acquired off waivers from the Ottawa Senators.
This is the fourth and final regular-season meeting of the year between the Sabres and Panthers. Florida has won the last two and five of the past seven encounters overall.