The Florida Panthers have spent their season on the murky fringes of the playoff picture. Today, it is clear that any playoff dreams will have to wait until next season.
With a Boston win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bruins all but assured themselves of a berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But, before Florida could even think about assistance from other teams, they would have to take care of business themselves against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That dream came to an end just as quickly. After playing Tampa to a scoreless draw after one, the Lightning took ever, eventually earning a 4-0 shutout victory to end Florida's contention.
The win would have done both teams a favour. The Canadiens and Lightning are tied in the points column, each with 104. And while the Habs have a game in hand, the Lightning hold the tie-breaker in regulation plus overtime wins (ROW), meaning that the Canadiens must finish with more points than Tampa if they are to take the division title.
As of now, that division title looks like the best possible outcome for the Canadiens' regular season. Two points lost to the Capitals and Devils leave the Anaheim Ducks, and in the East, the New York Rangers, in the driver's seat for the Presidents' Trophy.
If the Habs are to track down a piece of hardware they have not won since 1978, they'll need all six of their remaining available points. That gauntlet starts against the Panthers tonight.
How to Watch
Start time: 5:00 PM ET
In the Canadiens region (French): RDS
In Canada (English): Sportsnet
In the Panthers region: FS-F
Elsewhere: NHL GameCenter, NHL Center Ice
Tale of the Tape
|48.7||Score-Adjusted Fenwick %||50.8|
|1.17||5v5 Goal Ratio||1.05|
Know Your Enemy
The Panthers have played in 47 one-goal games this season, and that trend has percolated through the entire Habs-Cats season series. These two teams have played four one-goal games, of which Montreal has won three. In each case, the Canadiens have allowed no more than two goals, with the four starts split between Carey Price and Dustin Tokarski.
Roberto Luongo has already played three starts for Florida against Montreal, but odds are that Dan Ellis gets the green light this evening. Luongo played last night, and with the Panthers season effectively over, it is unlikely that Gerard Gallant asks his veteran star to strain unnecessarily.
Of course, the problem for Florida has never been who is in the nets, but rather, who was putting the puck toward their opponent's goalie. The Panthers have some excellent up-and-coming talent, with two examples currently residing on their top line, but the talent level drops into an abyss in the bottom-nine.
The Habs know that most of the danger of facing Florida lies with Jaromir Jagr, Aleksander Barkov, and Jonathan Huberdeau. The Canadiens have experienced success against Florida, despite the productivity of those three important players.
Tonight, the Tricolore will get another shot at shutting down the Panthers best and brightest.
Last Time Out
The Canadiens entered last week's game against Florida knowing that they would have to contain that top line. Despite the advance notice of the challenge that lay ahead, the Habs proved unable to defeat it.
That line spent about half of their ice time facing off against P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, a duel which ended close to a draw. An unfortunate breakdown led to a goal while Montreal's top pair was on, but otherwise, all threats were neutralized.
When Alexei Emelin and Jeff Petry, often in their own zone, were asked to faceoff against Florida's best, the outcome was a little different. The Panthers ate the pair alive, and were held at bay only by the unique talents of the Canadiens goaltender. In good measure a product of that specific match-up, Emelin-Petry came out looking like the Habs' worst pair, allowing two goals and earning abysmal possession numbers of 25.71% of 20.00% respectively.
With a friendlier zonal deployment, that pair had more success last night. Playing against the likes of Mike Cammalleri, Travis Zajac, and Patrik Elias, the pair looked much more effective. They came out close to a combined even (Petry ahead, Emelin behind) on shot attempts, and even generated a little bit of offense. Defensive match-ups were then left to Tom Gilbert and Nathan Beaulieu, and to a lesser extent, P.K. Subban and Sergei Gonchar.
While the outcome of last night's game was unfortunate, it may prove to be valuable case study in deployment of the Canadiens defense corps. If Michel Therrien is resigned to keeping these pairs together, it looks he will also have to accept sheltering Emelin as well.
It seems a popular theory amongst the Habs fan base that Therrien is biding his time, waiting for the playoffs to engage his best strategy. Whether or not that is true, tonight's match is one of only three remaining opportunities to determine just what that strategy might be.