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Habs move past Rangers with win over Panthers

by Arpon Basu
MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens have found a new winning strategy – playing from behind.

Tomas Plekanec scored the go-ahead goal early in the third period and Alex Auld held the fort with 33 saves to lead the Montreal Canadiens to a 3-2 win Wednesday night against the struggling Florida Panthers at the Bell Centre.

The Panthers led 1-0 after the first, but after starting the year as a team that simply couldn't overcome such a daunting deficit, the Canadiens have recently become practically unbeatable in these situations.

"It's great that we're understanding that it's a long game, it's 60 minutes, and you just have to continue to play no matter what happens," said rookie defenseman P.K. Subban, who had two assists on the night. "Guys like (Hal Gill) and (Brian Gionta) have been stressing that and it's been benefitting us."

Jeff Halpern and Gionta also scored for the Canadiens (29-18-5), who won for a second straight night following a 3-2 comeback victory in Washington on Tuesday.

In fact, after a 4-1 loss in Tampa Bay on Dec. 30, the Canadiens were 3-12-0 when allowing the first goal and 0-11-0 when trailing after 20 minutes. Since then, the Canadiens are 7-2-2 when allowing the first goal and 4-1-1 when entering the second with a deficit to make up.

Not so coincidentally, Montreal's overall record since Dec. 30 is a sparkling 9-2-3, giving them some rare breathing room in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Montreal moved past the idle New York Rangers into sixth place in the conference and to within a point of the fifth-place Washington Capitals. The Canadiens are six points ahead of eighth-place Atlanta.

But don't go telling Plekanec that is a comfortable lead, because he knows all too well how this team has had to scratch a claw to make the playoffs year after year.

"It's just two games and we need to keep going," Plekanec said. "It's going to be a battle right to the end. Those playoff races are always tight, and I'm sure the teams behind us will fight through it and get a lot of wins too. So it won't be easy."

Tomas Vokoun did all he could to keep the Panthers (22-23-6) in it with 38 saves, but ultimately the first career NHL goal of rookie Scott Timmins came in a losing cause. Making matters worse was the loss of rookie Evgeny Dadonov to a hand injury late in the first period.

Stephen Weiss scored his 15th of the season with 2:10 left in the game to make things interesting at the end, but not interesting enough to bring Florida all the way back.

"We can't expect to win 1-0 on the road, it's just impossible," Vokoun said. "We played hard, but they were just the better team. We weren't able to score. We had chances, but when you're playing against their backup goalie you've got to score goals."

The Panthers have only one win in their last eight games, though with only three regulation losses over that span Florida has still managed to bank four points.

Panthers head coach Peter DeBoer called this stretch "desperate times" for his club's dimming playoff chances, making this loss all the more painful.

"I think the whole season's been desperate for us," said Florida's David Booth. "We've been right there in every single game except a handful. We've got to find a way to get over that hump and start winning those games."

The Panthers remain seven points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the east with 31 games left to play, and the Feb. 28 trade deadline looming.

The two teams could possibly be discussing something for later this month, as Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier and his Panthers counterpart Dale Tallon were chatting one-on-one in the media lounge for at least half an hour prior to the game.

The Canadiens playoff hopes now look relatively solid and it would be safe to say that Gauthier would be a buyer as his club could still use a bit more punch offensively and perhaps a defenseman to help what has become an ailing penalty kill in the absence of the injured Josh Gorges.

On the other hand, Montreal's cure to its scoring woes could also come from within, with Gionta scoring his third goal in two games after an underwhelming level of production prior to the All-Star break.

The little spurt has coincided with he and Max Pacioretty being moved off a line centered by Scott Gomez and on to one pivoted by Plekanec.

It's been a common theme all season for struggling wingers to find their way onto Plekanec's line, and suddenly start to flourish.

"I just want to give them a chance to shoot the puck and do their jobs while making sure I'm strong defensively and doing my job well," Plekanec said. "If it's easy for them, then that's good."

The Canadiens' offense was coming largely from its power play for a long stretch, but even that has dried up as Montreal went 0-for-5 against Florida to run its scoreless drought to 0-for-19 over the last three games.

"We need to be better on our special teams, on our power play lately," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. "We'll dissect the game tomorrow morning and look at our power play, we'll have some suggestions and hopefully it'll pay off this weekend."

The Panthers are not exactly an offensive power house either, and the two low-scoring teams played a first period that was expected of them, with few offensive chances and little flow.

Still, it allowed Timmins to get his first career goal in only his second game when he converted a Rostislav Olesz feed in front at 7:30 of the first.

Halpern tied it at 4:50 of the second, batting a feed from Subban out of the air and past Vokoun for his eighth of the season.

Plekanec gave Montreal its first lead at 5:46 of the third, his sharp-angle shot bouncing off Vokoun, off Weiss' skate and lofting back into the air and eventually coming to rest just past the goal line.

Gionta gave the Canadiens some breathing room with his 17th of the season at 11:32 of the third, and it was needed as Weiss scored just as a power play was expiring at 17:50.
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