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Panthers hope to hand Habs third straight loss

by Magalie Lafreni?re

PANTHERS (17-19-7) at CANADIENS (21-21-3)

Last 10: Florida 5-5-0; Montreal 6-4-0.

Season Series: This is the second meeting of four between the teams. They met just a week ago in Florida in an afternoon New Year's Eve matchup, when the Habs edged the Panthers in a 5-4 victory. Benoit Pouliot scored the eventual game-winner at beginning of third period. Steven Reinprecht scored just after Pouliot to make it a one-goal game, but Montreal held on for the win.

Big Story: The Canadiens sit in the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 45 points. Every point is more and more crucial, especially for Montreal having coming off two straight losses.

Team Scope:

Panthers: Florida had a huge 6-2 win over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins on Sunday and things seemed to be looking good in the first period on Tuesday against the Maple Leafs. Former Leafs defenseman Keith Ballard had the Cats up two goals, but Toronto rallied for a 3-2 win.

In response to the loss, coach Peter DeBoer led a hard practice on Wednesday just outside of Toronto.

"We were not prepared to physically get involved last night and our practice today was designed to address our competitiveness level," said DeBoer. "We gave up to many chances, did not win puck battles and that ultimately cost us the game last night."

Canadiens: Montreal managed to keep Alex Ovechkin off the scoresheet on Tuesday in his debut as the Caps' captain, but it struggled to keep the rest of the Washington snipers at bay. The Capitals threw 43 pucks at the Canadiens, a season-high, and the Habs blocked another 18 shots, in the 4-2 Washington victory. Montreal only had 13 shots on goal through the first two periods. Carey Price finished with 39 saves.

Pouliot, who is still fitting well on a line with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, tipped the puck pass Michal Neuvirth midway through the third period to make it a one-goal game, but Alexander Semin gave the Caps a comfortable lead once again with his second goal of the night. Defenseman Josh Gorges scored Montreal's other goal.

"After a pretty even first period, I thought we lost momentum," coach Jacques Martin said. "They took the game away in the second period. They were more on the puck, were more aggressive, won more battles."

Who's Hot: After being held off the scoresheet for the first time since his return from injury against Buffalo on Sunday, Habs defenseman Andrei Markov picked up an assist against the Capitals. The Russian defenseman has 12 points in nine games. Pouliot's goal was his third in five contests.

Ballard's two goals on Tuesday marked his first multi-goal game of the season. Nathan Horton, who assisted on Ballard's second goal, has five points in his last three games.

Injury Report: The Kostitsyn brothers, Andrei (knee) and Sergei (ankle) are both out with injuries. Sergei skated with the team's head athletic therapist on Wednesday, but neither he nor his brother is expected to play Wednesday.  Defenseman Ryan O'Byrne is in his home province of British Columbia dealing with family matters. ... Panthers left wing David Booth continues to be out with a concussion and may be done for the season. Left wing Kenndal McArdle (shoulder/arm) and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (knee) are also on the injured reserve.

Stat Pack: The Canadiens boast the League's best power play, which is clicking at 25 percent. The Panthers are 19th at 17.26 percent.

Puck Drop: "We took a 2-0 lead and then we seemed to stop playing. As a team, we need to work harder and play for a complete 60 minutes. We have a great chance tomorrow to bounce back against a team that we played very well against last week." -- Panthers forward Radek Dvorak
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