MONTREAL - Head coach Michel Therrien believes it might be time for his club to have a break.
After a tough 2-1 loss to the Florida Panthers at the Bell Centre, Therrien came to the defence of a Montreal team that couldn't generate much offence during the game.
"We've played a lot of hockey in less than three weeks," said Therrien. "This team is drained. They're empty."
The Canadiens have played 11 games in the last 19 days, including a 1-0 overtime victory against the Islanders in New York on Saturday night. The team touched down at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal in the wee hours Sunday, delayed by a snowstorm, and even scratched their morning practice.
Therrien didn't blame the loss on a lack of effort or passion, but simply on fatigue.
"The lemon is squeezed of all its juice," said Therrien. "When physically, you're tired, the execution is not quite there, and you make bad decisions. They go hand in hand.
"I'm not blaming (the players). I see what we're asking of them. Very demanding. They're athletes, they're human beings. They gave what they could in the circumstances. I know what they could give, and they gave it."
The Canadiens started slowly, recording their first shot on net seven minutes into the first period, and were sluggish for most of the game. After two periods, the Panthers led 2-0 and were outshooting the home side 20-12.
Montreal came into the third with a burst of energy. With the Habs pressing on the power play, its first of three in the final 20 minutes, Alex Galchenyuk reduced the deficit at 2:28 after banging home captain Brian Gionta's rebound from inside the goaltender's crease.
But with Florida's Mike Weaver and Scottie Upshall in the penalty box later in the period, the Canadiens couldn't gain control of the game despite playing 35 seconds of 5-on-3 hockey. Galchenyuk had a golden chance in front of the net to tie the game, but fanned on the bouncing puck.
"We had an opportunity to win the game, and we wanted to win the game," said P.K. Subban, who registered the only shot on the Habs' back-to-back power plays. "We have to capitalize on our opportunities."
Panthers goaltender Scott Clemmensen made 17 saves, six of which came in the third period, to earn his second victory of the year. He got the nod in net in place of Tim Thomas, who's sidelined with a groin injury.
"Our penalty killing came up big for us," said Clemmensen, looking back on the 5-on-3. "Our guys were diving in front, getting sticks up there, deflecting passes, being in a good position. It was great. That's how we win games."
Peter Budaj got the start in net for the Canadiens, his first of the season at home. He stopped 23-of-25 shots.
The Panthers outshot the Canadiens 14-8 in the first period, but neither team came close to breaking the deadlock.
Jesse Winchester got the Panthers on the board at 4:44 of the second, beating Budaj to his right with a one-timer off the post and in.
Tomas Kopecky started the play, drawing both Montreal defencemen behind the net before feeding the puck to a wide open Winchester, who made no mistake from close range for his fifth goal of the year.
Nick Bjugstad doubled the Panthers' lead at 7:11, finishing off Florida's 3-on-2 rush by firing a wrist shot under Budaj's glove.
Florida (12-17-5) extended its win streak to three games. The Canadiens (20-12-3), meanwhile, have now lost three of their last four games, and have only scored three times in those outings.
Notes: The game was Montreal's third in four nights. … The Panthers have now won five of their last six games. … Montreal sits second in the Atlantic Division, three points behind the Boston Bruins. … The Panthers and Canadiens face off three more times this season. Their next encounter is on Dec. 29 in Sunrise, Florida.
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