Roberto Luongo
Luongo the toast of Florida
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Michael Rushton - NHL Contributor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's always fun to sit down and try the latest and craziest beverages produced by one of the many microbrews across North America, but other times its best to know exactly what you are getting.

In that regard, Roberto Luongo is a high-priced but well-worth bottle of vintage wine, a true go-to for enjoyment for the Florida Panthers.

When the dreaded term "rebuilding" is whispered amongst a hockey organization, it usually means that the fans and coaching staff are in for a few years of molding new, young talent. Add in a few talented veterans down the road and, to quote Carl Weathers, "baby, you've got a stew going."

The Panthers have made the playoffs just once in the previous 13 seasons and finished seventh out of eight teams in the Atlantic Division a season ago. That pretty much screams early stages of a rebuild, but that didn't stop Florida from making a big move prior to last season's trade deadline, getting Luongo from the Vancouver Canucks.

Acquiring a 35-year-old big-name netminder is usually a play that is made during the latter stages of a rebuild, but the Panthers couldn't pass up the chance to bring Luongo back to Sunrise, where he spent the majority of the early stages of his career.

Or maybe general manager Dale Tallon believed his club was closer to relevance than thought by the majority. After all, the Panthers sit only three points back of the Boston Bruins for the East's second wild card spot following a big win over the Canucks on Thursday night.

And yes, it is still early, but the Panthers have four games in hand on the Bruins.

Luongo is a big part of Florida's success obviously, going 16-7-7 with a goals against average (2.23) and save percentage (.926) that both rank top 10 in the NHL.

But even better for the Panthers growing core and first-year head coach Gerard Gallant is that Luongo is a safety net for the club, a bail-out that allows the coach and players to take some chances they may otherwise not take.

If any team knows that, it is the Canucks. Luongo spent nearly eight full seasons in Vancouver and left the franchise as its all-time leader in wins (233) and shutouts (38). He made 32 saves to defeat his former team on Thursday, tying Dominik Hasek for 11th on the all-time list with 389 wins.

Another sign of how special Luongo can be to a franchise: the fans cheered the opposing netminder for the entire game, from a video tribute early on to when he was named the game's first start at its completion.

The Canucks faithful even broke out vintage "Loo" chants for the game.

"It was nice to receive that acknowledgement," said Luongo. "I played here for eight years. I gave it my heart and soul the whole time. There was some ups and downs, obviously, but at the end of the day I'm glad the positive was remembered more than the negative."

If this season is any indication, there are some positive days ahead for the Panthers too.


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