After a quick jaunt through the central time zone, the Montreal Canadiens are back at good old UTC-05:00. But while their surroundings may feel more comfortable, the theme surrounding their opponents will not change from their road trip. For a fourth straight game, the Habs will stand in the way of a team with a serious playoff agenda.
The Florida Panthers got a leg up on Thursday night. While the Habs were walking a mile in their opponents' shoes, the Panthers were mauling a Toronto team that wrapped up their season weeks ago. At the same time, the Boston Bruins were blowing a third period lead to the Anaheim Ducks, and the Ottawa Senators were checking under couch cushions for some more of Andrew Hammond's fairy dust.
The mostly favourable outcomes keep Florida's faintly glimmering playoff hopes alive. Sports club stats puts their odds at 6.3%, as they sit three points back of Ottawa and Boston, but have played one more game than both of their competitors. To make matters worse, Florida has eight shootouts wins this year, which rules out the possibility of the Cats claiming the tie-breaker.
If Florida is going to attend the big dance, they're going to have to find a way to make up four points in only eight games. And now, they're going to have do it without their best forward available.
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Tale of the Tape
|48.7||Score-Adjusted Fenwick %||50.6|
|1.19||5v5 Goal Ratio||1.01|
Know Your Enemy
When Montreal and Florida last met, the Panthers were dealing with a fairly significant injury concern: Roberto Luongo. Bobby Lu looked poised to start that game, but Gerard Gallant went with Dan Ellis. In retrospect, Gallant may have made the opposite decision, as the Habs put so few chances toward the Panthers net that the game could technically have been considered a minor league rehab start.
Luongo will be back tonight, but in the wake of his injury comes of one that might be even more debilitating. The team announced yesterday that Nick Bjugstad, the heart and soul of the Panthers forward group, will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing back surgery. Bjugstad's 24 goals and 19 assists this year make him one of only three Panthers to have cracked 40 points, and for the offensively challenged Panthers, his absence may be difficult to overcome.
The primary candidate in the search for replacement offence may be one of the NHL's hottest shooters, in Brandon Pirri. In only 41 games this year, Pirri has already 20 goals on the season, including seven in his last seven games. Pirri's shooting percentage of 15.6 is one the NHL's highest, but for what it's worth, aligns well with his work over the miniscule sample that is his 97 game NHL career.
With only two assists on the campaign, Pirri has an oddly lopsided stat line, but he'll be nonetheless relied on produce from Florida's middle six. With Bjugstad gone, and Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Jaromir Jagr playing together, Pirri might be his team's best shot to prove that all of their eggs are not in one very small basket.
Last Time Out
The Panthers may have difficulty producing offence in general, but they imposed on their will on the Habs last time out. Florida put 43 shots on Dustin Tokarski, and with 35 of them coming at evens, the game marked Florida's third most productive game of the season.
Unfortunately for those hoping for a Florida playoff berth, that productivity did not yield any points in the standings. Tokarski stood on his head, and anchored the Habs to a 3-2 victory.
The Canadiens got three goals on only 14 scoring chances, compared to 32 for the Panthers. With a beautiful shorthanded odd man rush, Jacob de la Rose and Brandon Prust put the Habs up 2-1 in a second period that included all five goals scored in the game. Pirri would equalize five minutes later, but it took less than two minutes for P.K. Subban to square the game away.
With a wrist shot that eluded the Panthers third string keeper, Subban gave his team a victory that he would celebrate in style.
The Canadiens used the standard recipe when they beat Florida ten days ago, and they'll look to leverage that victory tonight as they try to bounce back from Thursday's loss. Suffering the indignity of losing at their own game must have felt like a harsh reality check. In reality, however, the Habs played one of their best games of the year two nights ago. Tonight, with the playoff desperation of their opponents weighing against them once again, the Canadiens will try to put it all together.