MONTREAL (CP) - The Montreal Canadiens "new season" began just like the last one ended - with a loss.
Ed Belfour made 24 saves to earn his 76th career shutout and backstop the Florida Panthers to a 1-0 win Tuesday over the Canadiens. It was Montreal's season-high fourth straight loss and sixth in seven games.
Canadiens defenceman Sheldon Souray proclaimed Tuesday's game as the start of a "new season" for Montreal after a slide that has seen the club win only seven of its last 22 games, but they were still afflicted with the same anemic offence that has plagued the team for the last two months.
"It's like walking in quick sand, you take one step forward and three steps back and you have to work twice as hard to get somewhere," Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau said. "It seems like that's what we're doing right now.
"When you're playing with confidence and everything's rolling, you're working hard but it seems like the game is easy. Right now, the game is hard."
Belfour's shutout tied him for eighth place on the all-time list with Tony Esposito, and he sits five shy of both Alex Connell and Tiny Thompson who are tied for sixth at 81 shutouts apiece.
"It was a big win and it's definitely an honour to be tied with Tony," Belfour said. "He's one of my heroes."
Jay Bouwmeester scored the winner for the Panthers (22-25-11), who won their second in a row after a three-game losing skid.
Cristobal Huet made 24 saves but still took his fourth straight loss for the Canadiens (29-23-6), who allowed the game's first goal for the ninth straight game and saw their record drop over that span to 2-6-1.
It was, however, the first time in those four starts that Huet didn't allow four goals, and Carbonneau said he would get the start again Wednesday night in New Jersey if he is physically ready.
"Everyone is very disappointed tonight, very disappointed," Huet said. "Technically some things were encouraging for me, but we're going to need to be better, if it takes a shutout or whatever."
Montreal's loss coupled with a 2-1 win by the Carolina Hurricanes dropped the Canadiens to eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings, only two points ahead of both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders.
The Canadiens dropped to 1-3-0 against the Panthers this season in the final game between the two clubs, with Montreal scoring only twice in regulation in the four games. Those lost points could prove costly by the end of the year.
"There's a lot of teams who go through difficulties scoring but they still find ways of winning games 1-0 or 2-0, whatever it takes," Canadiens captain Saku Koivu said. "Right now we're not finding that extra step and ways of winning."
The Canadiens were playing without winger Alex Kovalev, who went to the hospital after practice Monday to have some tests done on an undisclosed "upper body injury" and didn't take part in the morning skate on Tuesday.
Carbonneau said Kovalev would not play in Wednesday's game. Kovalev was benched for nearly the entire third period in Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators after his turnover eventually led to the game-winning goal 17 seconds into the final frame.
Sergei Samsonov took Kovalev's spot on the first line with Koivu and Chris Higgins, marking the first time this season Samsonov has started a game on Koivu's line.
"I don't think they were bad, they had their chances," Carbonneau said. "Obviously, you always expect the first line to create more. Right now they're squeezing their sticks."
After a first period with few scoring chances to speak of - aside from partial breakaways by Higgins and Drew Larman seconds apart about seven minutes in - the Panthers took a 1-0 lead late in the second.
A Canadiens clearing attempt was stopped at the blue line by Bryan Allen, who threw it behind the net to Olli Jokinen. He sent the puck in front, a scramble ensued and the puck popped out to Bouwmeester, who banked it in for the defenceman's ninth of the season at 16:16.
Montreal left the ice at the end of the second to a stream of boos from the sellout Bell Centre crowd of 21,273.
"They want us to win, and we want to win too," Huet said. "But the only thing we can do is get back on track and try to win the next game."
The Panthers appeared to take a 2-0 lead at 10:49 of the third when Kamil Kreps shot the puck into an empty net, but the goal was waved off by referee Kerry Fraser because Juraj Kolnik had accidentally knocked Huet to the ice.
Montreal had a glorious opportunity to tie the game when Alexei Semenov and Stephen Weiss took penalties six seconds apart with just under six minutes to play in regulation, but the Canadiens managed just three shots.
Then with the Montreal net empty and 28 seconds to play in regulation, Higgins hit the post after a series of saves by Belfour.
Notes: The Canadiens were also without winger Mike Johnson (flu), while defenceman Craig Rivet missed his third game with pneumonia. Defenceman Janne Niinimaa was a healthy scratch . . . In the absence of Rivet and Kovalev, Steve Begin wore an "A" as alternate captain . . . The Panthers were missing C Jozef Stumpel (shoulder), winger Rostislav Olesz (shoulder) and defenceman Branislav Mezei (shoulder). Centre Gregory Campbell was the lone healthy scratch . . . Panthers D Alexei Semenov, who left to play in Russia earlier this season and was suspended by the club as a result, was called up from the minors on Monday and made his season debut Tuesday against Montreal.