SUNRISE - On a night when the goaltenders stole the show, a late goal by Alex Kovalev allowed Cristobal Huet to take the final bow after leading the Canadeins to a 1-0 shutout victory over the Panthers Thursday night at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise.
The Canadiens (28-22-8) are now four points up on both the Bruins and Thrashers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers (23-28-8) meanwhile now find themselves 10 points back of Montreal.
Huet continued his solid work between the pipes, making 24 saves for his third shutout over his last seven games. The 30-year-old netminder has allowed only nine goals over his recent tear and has not suffered a loss in regulation since Feb. 2 in Boston.
The Canadiens backstop made a number of key saves but none bigger than his highlight reel glove grab at the expense of Juraj Kolnik midway through the second. Seemingly down and out on the play, Huet still managed to whip out his glove hand to rob Kolnik, who appeared to have all day to tee-up his wrist shot from the slot.
Huet's seventh NHL career shutout was made possible thanks in part to a heads up play by Mathieu Dandenault. The veteran defenseman swept the puck out of harm's way just short of the goal line to keep the game scoreless early in the third period after Kolnik slid into Huet and almost guided the puck into the net.
Kovalev took care of the rest by scoring the game's only goal with just over five minutes to go in the third period. Kovalev accepted a cross-ice pass from Chris Higgins, undressed the Panthers' Gregory Campbell with a slick move before roofing a wrist shot past Roberto Luongo. The Russian sniper's 15th goal of the season proved to be all the offense Huet and the Canadiens would need. In notching his third game-winning goal of the season, Kovalev now trails only Michael Ryder, who leads the team with five.
With Luongo sitting on the bench in favor of an extra attacker, the Panthers came within a hair of tying the game with less than 10 seconds remaining in regulation when Jozef Stumpel rang a shot off the post. After stopping all but one of the Canadiens 27 shots on the night, Luongo likely found himself wishing that his teammates had saved a few of the goals they scored in an 8-2 win over the Lightning on Tuesday. The Panthers have now been shutout seven times in 2005-06.
The Canadiens and Panthers are no strangers to being involved in tight checking affairs against one another with now all four of their meetings in 2005-06 ending by a one-goal margin. Montreal is now 18-13 in one-goal contests with still 24 games left on the schedule, after going 18-14 in all of 2003-04.
The Canadiens will remain in the state of Florida in preparation for their Saturday showdown with the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
NOTES - Bob Gainey went with the same lineup that downed the Islanders Tuesday in Long Island, leaving Niklas Sundstrom, Mark Streit and Garth Murray looking on from the pressbox...It was just the sixth time this season that the Canadiens were involved in a game that saw neither team score a power-play goal.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com