- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2007

Most people probably wouldn’t revel in a move from sunny South Florida to blustery British Columbia, but the change suited Roberto Luongo just fine.

Luongo, already a star from his days carrying a substandard Florida Panthers franchise on his broad shoulders, made the leap to superstardom last season with the Vancouver Canucks. After an offseason trade, Luongo won 47 games (second most in league history) and finished second to Martin Brodeur in the Vezina Trophy voting while also being nominated for league MVP honors.

“He’s got the speed, obviously, and he is aggressive, but he knows when to be aggressive,” said goalie Brent Johnson, whose Washington Capitals play host to Luongo and the Canucks tonight at Verizon Center. “It just seems like he always makes the right decision, and he’s proven it everywhere he’s gone. He played for some weaker teams and that showcased him a lot and then he went to Vancouver and had a heck of a run.”

After five fruitless seasons with the Panthers and part of one with the New York Islanders, the 28-year-old Luongo finally reached the postseason after leading the Canucks to a Northwest Division title. He made 72 saves, one short of the NHL record, in his first playoff start — a 5-4 quadruple overtime win against the Dallas Stars.

Vancouver defeated Dallas in seven games before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks in Round 2. Even in defeat Luongo was brilliant, stopping 56 of 58 shots in the decisive Game 5.

“It was a great experience. It was the best experience I’ve ever had in hockey,” Luongo said. “Everything was magnified. You win a game think on top of the world and lose a game it is the worst feeling in the world.”

Being on a team expected to compete for a Stanley Cup is a new experience for Luongo, a Montreal native who was drafted fourth overall by the Islanders in 1997. Twice he had been considered a franchise’s future in net, and twice he was traded away from those teams as they stumbled.

Now he is the face of a franchise in a hockey-mad region, which is also quite a departure from the laid-back atmosphere in South Florida. Because of his reserved nature, Luongo always has been a bit of a mystery.

“I don’t know, that is just the type of the guy that I am,” Luongo said. “Not only in the NHL, but off the ice with friends and family that is my personality. It is just the way I was brought up.”

Solving Luongo has certainly been a tough case to crack for the Caps. He has won nine straight games against Washington, dating back to his final game against the Caps before the lockout.

The 6-foot-3 goaltender is also 7-4-1 with a 2.25 goals against average and a .934 save percentage in his career at Verizon. In eight games against Luongo, Caps right wing Alex Ovechkin has only three goals.

“He reads the game and he knows the players. He knows the most dangerous players,” Ovechkin said. “I just try to shoot the puck. I try to shoot to empty spaces and score goals.”

Because of the current NHL schedule model, Luongo will be making his first return appearance to all five of the Southeast Division rinks this season — places with which he became familiar during his tenure with the Panthers.

He played at RBC Center against Carolina on Monday night, one of four losses in Vancouver’s past five contests. But the one Luongo is probably most looking forward to is his return to BankAtlantic Center on Feb. 1 to face his former team.

“It is going to be exciting. I look forward to being in all of those cities. It is going to be a reminiscent of the past,” Luongo said. “My wife’s family and friends are going to be [in Sunrise, Fla.]. It is something that I am looking forward to and I hope I receive a good reception there.”

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