Jose Theodore was served with the challenge of facing his old-time rivals, the Boston Bruins.
Theodore's tenure in Montreal was highlighted by two playoff upsets of the Bruins last decade, and the rivalry between the two Original Six teams never dropped below a fevered pitch during his stint with the Canadiens.
With a season-high 40-save performance and his second shutout of the season, the Panthers' 2-0 victory over the Bruins at the TD Garden on Thursday night felt like old times for the 35-year-old.
"It's just obviously ... Boston's an Original Six team," Theodore said after he helped the Panthers win for the fourth time in their last five outings and pass Boston for second place in the Eastern Conference. "And it was a big rivalry with Montreal. I played them in the playoffs there. It's easy to get pumped up. They're always one of the best teams in the League. ... There's always something that gets you going, and when you play against the best you want to raise your game."
Theodore, who admitted his energy level was still low after a bout with the flu that kept him out of Monday night's game against Washington, got some fortunate bounces along the way as the Panthers handed the Bruins their second straight loss after a 14-0-1 run. Boston hit three posts in the first period and no fewer than four over the course of the game.
But Theodore withstood a 14-shot barrage, including several shots from close range, in the third period and kept the game scoreless until Tomas Kopecky was able to pounce on a loose puck just above the slot and fire it into the net with 2:32 remaining in regulation.
"When it's a tie game on the road after two periods, you know you're sitting pretty good," Theodore said. "It was just about making that next save. The guys came through scoring big goals, came through on the PK. And it's a team effort tonight."
Kris Versteeg hit the empty net in the final minute.
Fresh off a dramatic 5-4 win against the Southeast Division-rival Capitals on Monday night, the Panthers might not have played their best all-around game. However, the confidence level they've developed with wins over some of the League's top teams, including San Jose and the New York Rangers, might have made the difference in grinding out a victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions.
"I just felt we had to find a way to get some offense," Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. "Our pressure was so sporadic. We didn't put sustained pressure. We had little snap shots here and there, but for the most part the ice was leaning towards our end. Our goaltending was stellar as I mentioned and I think when you find a way to win a game like that, that has something to do with the confidence of your team. I think a little of that would be built on what we've done so far. That's a group that realizes they didn't give their best effort, but they found a way to win."
After scoring 62 goals during the 15 games in which they didn't suffer a regulation loss, the Bruins have scored just one goal in back-to-back losses to Winnipeg and Florida. A failure to execute on the rush late in the third led to Florida's go-ahead goal, as Milan Lucic fumbled the puck and was poke-checked by Dmitry Kulikov. The Panthers' Shawn Matthias rushed back the other way and fired a shot on Tim Thomas (28 saves). Several players fanned on the rebound before Kopecky fired it into the net.
"I mean, it was just started in our zone. It was a great shot by Matty, it was low," Kopecky said. "Rebound, and our goalie coach told us, 'don't take any chances' because he's a really good goalie, he never gives up on a shot. So I just wanted to make sure and bear down and we won."
The Bruins played most of the game down a forward, as fourth-line left wing Daniel Paille left with an injury after a hit from Florida newcomer Krys Barch 2:17 into the game. Paille staggered off the ice, and after the game Bruins coach Claude Julien said he was being examined by doctors.
Adam McQuaid, Dennis Seidenberg and Patrice Bergeron all rattled iron over the course of the first 20 minutes when the Bruins could have jumped in front.
"Again, it was, not a lot of the passes were crisp, or on the tape, or we were bobbling them, and nothing was really clean tonight," Julien said. "I think that's what really made our game hard. It started like that on the first power play, it started like that on one of the first plays of the game, and my feeling was that, after each period, as long as we didn't score, they were going to hang in there and just wait for the opportunity, and they did. The goaltender played well, they played a smart road game, and they waited for that chance to score that goal. It was up to us to take charge early in the game when we had some of those good chances, and we didn't bury them."
Theodore joked after the game that all he got for his 600th game was a tap on the back and a cup of coffee. While it's not something he or his teammates can put on their mantle, what they really got was another attention-grabbing win that proved they're for real.
"It's a big confidence booster for us," Kopecky said. "We've got to keep it going. We're playing confident right now, don't get too high, don't get too low, and stay right in the middle. That's what we're doing right now. We try to prove those people who never believed in us [wrong], and so far we're doing, I think, a good job."