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Canadiens 1, Panthers 0 @NHLdotcom

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) - Cristobal Huet is taking full advantage of an opportunity to start in goal for the Montreal Canadiens.

Huet made 24 saves for his third shutout in his last seven games, and Alexei Kovalev scored with 5:49 left in the third period to help the Canadiens beat the Florida Panthers 1-0 on Thursday night.

"Huey stole the show again," Canadiens center Christopher Higgins said.

Huet has started Montreal's last seven games, including five before the Olympic break when he took over for Jose Theodore. The Canadiens are 5-0-2 in those games.

"It's real important for the guys to know they can count on me the rest of the year," Huet said.

Theodore is out until late March after fracturing a heel during the break.

"(Huet) doesn't look like a player who wants to give up his position to anybody," Canadiens coach Bob Gainey. "You have to earn the confidence of your teammates, and he has done that for a while."

Montreal native Roberto Luongo stopped 26 shots for the Panthers.

The Canadiens, eighth in the Eastern Conference, improved to 6-3-2 in their last 11 games. Florida, which played at home for the first time since Feb. 3, lost in regulation for only the second time in its last 11 games (6-2-3).

"It's getting to that time of year where it's playoff hockey and everybody is playing a lot tighter now," Florida defenseman Mike Van Ryn said. "I really don't think you're going to see a lot of chances from here on out. Any time you get a scoring chance you've got to bury it."

Montreal won the season series 3-1, with all four games decided by one goal.

Kovalev scored after taking a cross-ice pass from Higgins in front of the net. Kovalev deked center Gregory Campbell before beating Luongo with a wrist shot over the right shoulder.

"The difference tonight was Kovalev," Huet said. "He's a great player who can change a game like that with his skills."

Florida's Jozef Stumpel hit the post on a wrist shot in the final 10 seconds.

"In the last game, we got lucky and lots of shots went in the net, but tonight we took lots of shots and nothing went in," Stumpel said. "I hit the crossbar, but (Chris) Gratton was right there and it just bounced over his stick. It was just one of those days."

Florida almost took the lead earlier in the third period after Huet stopped Juraj Kolnik and the puck began sliding toward the open net. But defenseman Mathieu Dandenault cleared the puck before it reached the goal line.

Montreal had a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:18 late in the first period, but Kovalev wasted the best scoring chance when he shot wide on a one-timer from the side.

Florida's best chance in the first two periods came on Kolnik's shot from the front of the net that was gloved by Huet.

"It was a terrific game to be involved in and hopefully it was a great game for the fans," Gainey said. "You could see that kind of determination in Florida right until the final buzzer."

Notes: Because his Panthers mask didn't make its way back from Italy, Luongo wore his Team Canada mask for the second straight game. ... The Canadiens have four more games left on their six-game trip, which matches their longest of the season. They are 2-0 on their current trip after going 2-4 on their first six-game trip. ... The Panthers, who won at Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, haven't won consecutive games since Jan. 9 and 12. ... Montreal signed D James Sanford, currently playing for Hamilton in the AHL, to a two-year contract.

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