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Florida Panthers vs. Montr?al Canadiens @NHLdotcom
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GAME: Florida Panthers (24-29-14-3) at Montreal Canadiens (37-26-6-2).

TIME: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. EST.

Goaltending is widely believed to be the most important factor in the playoffs.

The Montreal Canadiens should be happy to hear that.

Surging Montreal will look to move a step closer to clinching a playoff berth when it takes on the Florida Panthers in the opener of a three-game homestand.

Montreal has strengthened its grip on seventh place in the Eastern Conference by winning three straight and eight of nine. The Canadiens, winners of four straight at home, have moved eight points ahead of the New York Islanders and within one point of New Jersey for sixth.

"We have to aim as high as we can," goalie Jose Theodore said. "The team has been playing well, and now we're in the final stretch, so the points are really important."

A 36-save performance from Theodore on Monday helped Montreal close a four-game trip with a 5-2 victory over Anaheim.

Theodore's strong showing came two days after backup Mathieu Garon stopped 46 shots in a 4-2 win over Los Angeles.

"We have to be realistic and realize that we didn't play our best hockey of the year in these last two games," Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. "We had teams with their backs against the wall that came out hard at us, and we didn't respond that well."

The 86 combined shots allowed by the Canadiens against the Kings and Mighty Ducks matched their worst two-game stretch of the season. They yielded 49 against Florida and 37 against Tampa Bay on Dec. 12 and 13, respectively.

Theodore has won seven of his last eight starts, yielding 15 goals. Garon is 5-0 in his past six starts, allowing 13 goals.

Montreal's Richard Zednik is one of the league's hottest players, with five goals and four assists in his last five games.

Hours after trading leading scorer Valeri Bure and forward Marcus Nilson, the Panthers put up little fight in a 5-0 loss at Toronto on Tuesday.

It was the third straight defeat for Florida, outscored 15-5 during its skid.

Goalie Steve Shields, who stopped 37 shots in a rare start, was critical of his teammates.

"We have a lot of guys that show up and play hard, and we have some that are holding us back," Shields said. "It's pretty obvious to everybody we're a team that's in ninth or 10th because we don't have everybody coming to the rink every night."

Tuesday's loss left the Panthers nine points behind the Islanders with 12 games left in the race for the final playoff berth in the East.

STANDINGS (through March 9): Panthers - 65 points, 2nd place, 26 PB, Southeast Division. Canadiens - 82 points, 4th place, 6 PB, Northeast Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Panthers - Olli Jokinen, 19 goals, 24 assists and 43 points; Darcy Hordichuk, 147 PIM. Canadiens - Zednik, 24 goals; Mike Ribeiro, 39 assists and 57 points; Darren Langdon, 128 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS (through March 9): Panthers - Power play: 16.0 percent (41 for 257), 15th in NHL. Penalty killing: 85.8 percent (265 for 309), 3rd. Canadiens - Power play: 18.4 percent (52 for 283), 7th. Penalty killing: 81.5 percent (221 for 271), 26th.

GOALTENDERS: Panthers - Roberto Luongo (21-28-13, 7 SO, 2.30 GAA); Shields (3-4-1, 3.42). Canadiens - Theodore (29-24-5, 6, 2.16); Garon (8-4-1, 2.41).

SEASON SERIES: Panthers, 2-0-1.

LAST MEETING: Feb. 10; Panthers, 2-1. At Sunrise, Fla., Viktor Kozlov, now with New Jersey, set a club record by scoring twice in seven seconds, as the Panthers gave John Torchetti a win in his NHL coaching debut.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Panthers - 11-17-8-1 on the road; Canadiens - 19-11-4-0 at home.

Associated Press
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