SUNRISE, Fla. - The Florida Panthers will have a chance to tighten their grip on a playoff spot when they wrap up a crucial back-to-back set against the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday night.
The Panthers (19-13-5) have won four of their last five games and are coming off a 5-4 win over Detroit on Saturday, while the Canadiens (18-4-6), who have won three of their last five, saw an early two-goal lead slip through their fingers in 5-4 defeat less than 24 hours ago at Tampa Bay.
Montreal currently trails Florida by one point for third place in the Atlantic Division.
"They're a good team," Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman said. "They play with a lot of pace. It's going to be a fast game. I don't know what the score was in their game, but they're going to be hungry. It's a division game. We haven't seen them. It's going to be a good test."
Trailing the Red Wings 3-1 in the second period, Brett Connolly, Mike Hoffman and Dominic Toninato each found the back of the net within a span of less than five minutes to give Florida a 4-3 lead heading into the third, with Hoffman and Toninato's goals coming nine seconds apart.
In the third, Anton Stralman scored what held up as the eventual game-winning goal when he buried a wrist shot from the right circle to increase the lead to 5-3 with 6:36 left in regulation.
Finishing with a goal and two assists, Hoffman was named the first star of the game.
"Obviously tonight going into the third period we had a one-goal lead and wanted to try and ride some momentum into tomorrow night," Hoffman said. "I thought the guys did a good job shutting it down and playing the way we wanted in the third period."
After backup Chris Driedger started against Detroit, Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to man the crease for the Panthers against the Canadiens. Over his last seven starts, the 31-year-old has posted a 4-3-0 record while stopping 230 of 244 shots for an outstanding .943 save percentage.
In his career against Montreal, Bobrovsky has gone 10-6-1 with a .934 save percentage.
At the other end of the ice, the Canadiens could potentially counter with a former Vezina Trophy winner of their own. Despite allowing five goals on 30 shots in last night's loss to the Lightning, there's a chance that Carey Price settles in between the pipes once again tonight in Sunrise.
In 31 appearances this season, Price owns a 16-12-3 record with a 2.93 goals-against average, .904 save percentage and one shutout. If the 32-year-old veteran ends up getting the night off, however, then expect to see 20-year-old rookie Cayden Primeau get the nod in net for Montreal.
But regardless of who's in the blue paint, goaltenders for both teams are in for a challenge.
While the Panthers rank fifth in the league in goals per game (3.49), the Canadiens aren't far behind in 11th (3.24). Florida also owns the league's fifth-best power play (24.3 percent), while Montreal's 23.2 percent success rate while on the man advantage is good enough for ninth.
Up front, Jonathan Huberdeau enters tonight's matchup on a five-game point streak and leads the Panthers in scoring with 49 points, including three goals and nine assists during his streak.
Fueling Montreal's attack, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher pace the team with 33 and 32 points, respectively, and have each potted 15 goals. Recording at least one point in nine of his last 11 games, Gallagher has been red hot, racking up five goals and eight assists in that span.
Tonight's game marks the first of four matchups between the Panthers and Canadiens.
-- Jonathan Huberdeau leads the Panthers and ranks ninth in the league with 49 points. He also leads the team and ranks fifth in the league in assists (35). Over his last 21 games played, the 26-year-old winger has recorded 29 points (five goals, 24 assists).
-- Noel Acciari has recorded seven goals over his last five games -- including consecutive hat tricks -- and has already set a new career-highs in goals (12) and points (15) this season. The 28-year-old forward also ranks first on the Panthers in hits (64) and second in blocks (53).
-- Aleksander Barkov ranks second on Florida in points (42), assists (31) and shots (101), and is also tied for first in faceoff win percentage (53.9). Over his last 25 games, the 24-year-old center has posted 29 points (11 goals and 18 assists).
-- Mike Hoffman has posted nine points (three goals, six assists) over his last 10 games. The 30-year-old winger ranks fourth on Florida in goals (13) and is also tied for fourth in points (27).
-- Keith Yandle ranks third among the league's defensemen in assists (26) and tied for second in power-play points (15). The 33-year-old also paces Florida's defensemen and ranks tied for fifth among the league's blueliners with 30 points, including 12 over his last 13 games.
-- Evgenii Dadonov is tied for fourth in points (27) and tied for second in goals (14) on Florida.
-- Vincent Trocheck has recorded 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) over his last 19 games.
-- Brett Connolly leads the Panthers with 15 goals.
PROJECTED LINEUP (NO MORNING SKATE)
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Evgenii Dadonov
Brett Connolly - Vincent Trocheck - Noel Acciari
Frank Vatrano - Brian Boyle - Mike Hoffman
Colton Sceviour - Dominic Toninato - Denis Malgin
Keith Yandle - Mark Pysyk
Riley Stillman - Anton Stralman
Mike Matheson - Josh Brown
Scratches: Jayce Hawryluk, MacKenzie Weegar (injured), Aaron Ekblad (injured)
- Dec. 27: D Riley Stillman was recalled from AHL Springfield.
- Dec. 23: F Jayce Hawryluk was recalled from his conditioning loan with AHL Springfield.
- Dec. 17: F Ryan Haggerty was acquired from Pittsburgh in exchange for F Kevin Roy
- Dec. 11: F Jayce Hawryluk was assigned to AHL Springfield on a conditioning loan.
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BITE OF BB&T CENTER
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HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN
When: Sunday, Dec. 29, 7:00 p.m. ET
Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL
Stream: FOX Sports GO
Panthers Radio Network: 790 WAXY (Dade/Broward); 850 WFTL (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM 223 / Streaming 932