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Panthers hope to bounce back in Montreal

by Frank Mentesana
PANTHERS (36-24-15) at CANADIENS (29-34-13)

: RDS (HD), TSN2, FS-F (HD)

Last 10: Florida 5-2-3; Montreal 4-3-3.

Season Series: Winners of the prior three meetings, the Panthers go for their first season sweep of the Canadiens. Florida posted one-goal victories -- one at home and one on the road -- in the first two matchups and then doubled up the Habs 4-2 in the latest encounter on Feb. 26 in the Sunshine State.  

Big Story: Even though the Panthers are still in a solid position to win their first division title, there is still an outside chance they could miss the postseason altogether -- especially if they don't improve upon their recent performances. Following a season-high five-game winning streak, the Cats have lost three in a row -- all against non-playoff teams (Carolina, Edmonton and the New York Islanders). Their lead over Washington in the Southeast is down to three points after the Capitals shut out Minnesota 3-0 on Sunday. Florida, who begins a four-game road trip Tuesday, has seven games remaining; The Caps have six. Buffalo is also lurking in ninth place in the East with the same amount of points (84) and games played (76) as Washington.

"Obviously, you want to win every home game but it was tough playing against loose teams like Edmonton and the Islanders are," said Florida forward Tomas Fleischmann. "It's the end of the season and we are a kind of a tight group right now. Washington is coming after us for the playoffs. It's a fight right now."

Florida will continue to square off with some of the bottom teams in the League over its next three games, beginning with Tuesday's contest against the Canadiens. The Habs, 29th in the NHL with just 71 points, are finishing one of the most frustrating seasons in their illustrious history. After visiting Montreal, the Panthers travel to Minnesota and Columbus before wrapping up their trip in Detroit. 

Team Scope:

Panthers: Florida's weekend featured a pair of shootout losses at home. After dropping a 2-1 decision to the Oilers on Friday, the Panthers lost to the Islanders 3-2 on Sunday, falling to 20-9-10 at the BankAtlantic Center. Stephen Weiss and Fleischmann scored for the Cats, who have managed just four goals during their losing skid and only eight tallies in their last five overall.

"We've just got to find a way to score some goals," Weiss said. "We're not scoring enough goals. Whatever that is, whatever the formula is, we've got to find a way to put the puck in the net and get some more run support for our goalies because they're playing great. We've just got to find a way to score some goals. We're getting chances, but we're just not bearing down."

Canadiens: The Canadiens were officially eliminated from postseason contention with a 4-1 loss in Philadelphia on Saturday. Montreal, which had the NHL's top-ranked penalty kill coming into the game, allowed the Flyers to score three power-play goals in five opportunities. The Habs failed to convert on five power plays of their own, including a 1:21 two-man advantage. Tomas Plekanec netted their only goal, while Peter Budaj started in place of Carey Price and made 29 saves in just his 13th appearance of the season. Despite the loss, the Canadiens are still above .500 in March (5-4-3) as they try to close out a miserable season with some positive results.

"We still want to win hockey games," coach Randy Cunneyworth told the team’s official website. "Regardless of where guys are, the end result remains that we still want the 'W'."

Who's Hot: Weiss has three goals and four assists during a six-game point streak, which is one game short of matching his career high.

Injury Report: Florida is without forwards Jack Skille (shoulder) and Matt Bradley (concussion). … Montreal captain Brian Gionta (biceps surgery), Travis Moen (upper body), Mathieu Darche (illness/upper body), Raphael Diaz (lower body) and Scott Gomez (concussion) are all on Injured Reserve. Yannick Weber (lower body) sat out the loss in Philadelphia and is questionable to play. Tomas Kaberle (upper body) has missed the last six games and has yet to be cleared for contact, though he skated with the team Monday morning.

Stat Pack: Former Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore is 4-1-2 with a 1.66 goals-against average in his last seven starts following Sunday's 35-save effort. … Fleischmann, who leads the Cats with 56 points, set a new career high with his 24th goal of the season against the Isles. … Erik Cole, who has scored twice against the Panthers this season, needs one goal to set a new career high at 31.

Puck Drop: If the Panthers fail to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000, one of the reasons will be their lackluster shootout record. After Sunday's loss, they are 5-10 in tiebreakers this season.

"Unfortunately for us, the shootout has been a little bit of a stickler this year," coach Kevin Dineen said. "Obviously, we approach that in different manners and it still continues to be a little bit of an issue for us and something that we have enjoy getting out and enjoy being a part of. That's a big difference when you are engaged in that shootout and feel like you're going out there with a little swagger to it. Right now, when things don't always fall on our side, there's a little tightness when it comes to the shootout."

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