On a night when he was in the spotlight for his career achievements and recent induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Roberto Luongo must have wondered for a moment on Thursday night if he was going to get pressed into service as an EBUG.
After the Florida Panthers put three goals past Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko in the span of 59 seconds near the end of the first period, Demko went down and grabbed his right leg. Ryan Lomberg finished off a four-shot sequence from Florida’s fourth line that encountered almost no resistance from the reeling Vancouver defenders, leaving Demko out to dry.
It was another nightmarish turn of events for the 26-year-old netminder, whose strong play last season earned him mentions as a potential Vezina Trophy candidate. This year, Demko is 3-10-2 with an .883 save percentage and 3.93 goals-against average.
Backup Spencer Martin has put up better numbers at 6-2-1, .900 and 3.21, and when he started three of the Canucks’ last four games before Thursday, there were whispers that a goalie controversy might be afoot.
But that conversation is most likely on hold — for now, anyway. There was no post-game update on Demko’s condition, but he looked to be in considerable pain as he was helped off the ice with 47 seconds left to play in the opening frame, without putting any weight on his right leg. There’s expected to be an update on him later Friday.
Martin stepped in and finish the game, giving up two goals on 14 shots in 40:11 of action as the Panthers snapped a three-game winless streak with a decisive 5-1 victory.
If Demko is out for any period of time, the timing of his injury makes his club’s contingency planning a little bit easier. Thursday marked the Canucks’ fourth game in six nights. Now, they’ll play just five more games over the next two weeks, and they have only one back-to-back set in the entire month of December.
Now working with the Florida Panthers as special advisor to GM Bill Zito and overseeing the Panthers’ goaltending excellence department, Luongo and his old teammates Daniel and Henrik Sedin were honored by the Canucks on Thursday night after all three were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last month.
On Wednesday, the Canucks also announced they’ll be inducting Luongo into their Ring of Honour during the 2023-24 season.
The Sedins spent their entire careers in Vancouver and hold a number of franchise records between them. Their numbers were retired in 2020.
Luongo played 448 games with the Canucks from 2006 to 2014 — in between two stops in Florida which totalled 572 games. His winning percentage and personal numbers were better in Vancouver, where he also played 64 of his 70 career playoff games. But Luongo is the only player in Panthers franchise history to have his number retired, 11 months after he played his final NHL game on April 6, 2019.
When he was introduced during Thursday’s pregame ceremony at Rogers Arena, Luongo went out of his way to downplay the idea that he also deserves more than a Ring of Honour nod in Vancouver.
“On a personal note, I really wanted to thank you guys for pushing me to be a better goaltender, pushing me to be a better person every single night,” he told the crowd, after reflecting earlier in the day on his personal evolution during his time in Vancouver. “Now, I know there’s a lot of debate about the Ring of Honour and the (jersey retirement), but that stuff doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is moments like tonight and sharing that with you guys. So thank you very much. See you next year.”
During warmups, Canucks players wore jerseys numbered 22, 33 and 1 in honor of the three Hall of Famers. There would have been a uniform handy if Luongo had been pressed into service.
But of course, the now 43-year-old hung up his pads because of all the wear and tear on his body from his 1,044 career NHL games played — second-most in NHL history, behind only Martin Brodeur. Even at last month’s Hockey Hall of Fame Legends Game, Luongo elected to play forward rather than suit up for even one more game in net.
And while Luongo’s return on Thursday was special for Canucks fans, it was also significant for the Panthers — where many of the club’s current players know him more as a front-office figure than as a player.
“It’s great, right — to feel an appreciation from the community here?” said Florida coach Paul Maurice after the game. “I think only Aaron Ekblad would have played with Roberto. So for these guys, he’s a Hall of Famer, but he’s a senior Hall of Famer. They get to understand how important he was for this community.”
Aleksander Barkov was a rookie when Luongo returned to Florida in March of 2014. But he has been absent from the Panthers’ last four games due to illness.
First-year Panther Matthew Tkachuk was named the first star on Thursday thanks to a goal and two assists and is now tied for sixth in league scoring with 32 points in 22 games.
Calling the Sedins and Luongo “three really important players in our game,” Tkachuk said he has enjoyed “getting to know Lou over the last little bit. He’s been amazing and somebody I’ve really enjoyed talking with.
“It’s pretty cool that I’ll be able to tell my family one day that I played against those three legends,” he added.
Now 1-1-1 on their current five-game road swing, the Panthers will visit the red-hot Seattle Kraken on Saturday before wrapping up their trip in Maurice’s old stomping grounds of Winnipeg next Tuesday. The Canucks are now 0-2-0 on their current homestand and will host the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday.
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