MONTREAL – Roberto Luongo will never forget his last visit to Montreal with the Vancouver Canucks.
It was two seasons ago in January 2007, and during practice the day before a game against the Canadiens he was struck on the throat by a shot from teammate Daniel Sedin.
The star goaltender was kept in hospital overnight, taking only fluids through his swollen neck, but the Montreal native came out and not only dressed for the game, he made 30 saves in a 4-0 shutout victory.
“I think we played our best game of the year that night,” Luongo recalled Monday after emerging unscathed from a practice at the Bell Centre. “I didn’t have to work as hard as some other nights.
“It was really a great ending to what had been kind of a nightmare the day before, but I look back at it now and it was a memorable experience.”
And this time, Sedin made sure to keep his shots low.
“It’s been three days in a row I’ve been warning him,” Luongo added with a laugh. “That’s why I got off the ice so fast after practice. I didn’t want to take any chances.”
Luongo will be looking for another strong performance when the Canucks try to complete a sweep of a four-game all-Canadian road trip Tuesday night against the Canadiens.
The 29-year-old is finally rounding into form after missing 24 games with a groin injury suffered in November. After an 0-5-3 slump in January that raised fears of falling out of the playoff race, the Canucks have won eight of their last nine, with Luongo getting all eight wins.
He has let in some soft ones, but overall he is beginning to look like an all-star goalie again.
“I’m feeling comfortable and I’m reading the play well,” he said. “I feel that I’m back to where I want to be.
“Obviously, there are some goals you’d like to have back. There’s always going to be mistakes. But feeling-wise, on the ice, I’m feeling normal again.”
Coach Alain Vigneault said Luongo’s performance and having Mats Sundin slowly restore his game after joining the team in mid-season has had much to do with the Canucks success of late.
But trips to Montreal, where his parents and other family members still live, are always special to Luongo, who picked up 19 tickets for family and friends for the game. A three-day break between games, including a full day off for the whole team on Sunday, gave Luongo time for a good visit.
“If he got through practice, I know he’ll be fine,” Vigneault said with a grin. “I know he’s looking forward to this game and he’ll do a good job for us.
“Slowly but surely we’ve found our game. Roberto started to get better and our whole team got better. We went through a tough time, but every team at one time or another is going to go through some challenging moments.”
Luongo will be up against Montreal backup Jaroslav Halak, who was in goal for a 5-3 win Saturday over Ottawa. Coach Guy Carbonneau said that with No. 1 goalie Carey Price struggling, he would go with Halak as long as he keeps winning.
The Canucks began their trip with a 4-3 shootout win in Calgary, followed by a 5-2 victory in Ottawa and a 3-2 shootout win Saturday night in Toronto, in which former Leafs captain Sundin scored the game-winner.
Vancouver is 11-4 against Canadian-based teams this season, including six wins in a row going back to a 3-2 loss to Edmonton at home on Dec. 26.
The focus for much of this trip has been on Sundin’s return to Toronto, where he played 14 seasons before signing as a free agent with Vancouver – after taking the first half of the season off to ponder whether he would continue to play.
There were cheers and a few jeers in Toronto, where last season he controversially refused to waive his no-trade clause just before the league’s trading deadline.
In Montreal, he’s used to being booed, having only visited early in his career as a Quebec Nordique and then as a Leaf.
Now the fans’ scorn may be centred on his decision to sign with Vancouver instead of joining the Canadiens. Last season, Montreal made a deal with the Leafs for rights to negotiate with Sundin’s camp until his contract expired on July 1.
The chance to land the six-foot-five, right-shooting, skilled centre the team needed had Montreal in a tizzy for much of the summer, until general manager Bob Gainey finally gave up and acquired centre Robert Lang from Chicago in a trade.
Sundin seemed perplexed when questioned about it, saying he was unaware of the commotion he had caused in Montreal.
“I’m very flattered,” he said with a smile. “For me, this summer, it was more of a decision on whether I would play hockey or not, so I didn’t really think about any teams, to be honest.
“Since July 1 Vancouver, the way I looked at it, was my No.1 option all the time. As it turned into fall and I started thinking about returning to hockey, I always had Vancouver as my main option.”
Sundin signed a one-year contract worth US$8.6 million on Dec. 18 and played his first game for Vancouver on Jan. 7.
After a slow start, he has been hitting his stride of late on the Canucks second line with Ryan Kesler and Pavol Demitra, which has been dubbed the RPM Line.
“The whole purpose that Vancouver wanted me for I think was to form a line that could help the Sedins,” Sundin said of fellow Swedes Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who play on the top line, lately with Alex Burrows. “The best teams now have two or three productive lines.
“The role I think they want from me is to be on a secondary line that can help with production and try to relieve some of the pressure from those guys.”
Checker Darcy Hordichuk, whose wife Lisa had a baby boy on the weekend, did not make the trip to Montreal. And forward Jennik Hansen, who fractured a finger Thursday in Ottawa, had the finger put back in place and set in a splint. He will be out two-to-three weeks, Vigneault said.
Montreal captain Saku Koivu missed practice Monday with a flu, but is expected to play.