Coming off two straight wins, the Montreal Canadiens headed into the BB&T Center to face the Florida Panthers with yet another new face making his NHL debut, Brett Lernout, and the return of two injured players in Brendan Gallagher and Daniel Carr.
The Habs had yet to lose since being eliminated from the playoff race. Having Gallagher back in the lineup was big boost toward keeping the streak alive. Meanwhile, Mike Condon had not allowed a goal since late in the second period on March 29th, against the Detroit Red Wings.
Montreal's first line took the opening faceoff and immediately applied offensive pressure on the Panthers. Gallagher got into the action right off the bat, with his line drawing a penalty only 34 seconds into the game, as Jaromir Jagr hooked Alex Galchenyuk.
As has been the case for the entire season, the Canadiens failed to score on the ensuing power play. It proved to be their only man advantage of the game, and not only did they fail to score, but were unable to generate any sustained pressure in the Florida zone.
On Gallagher's very next even-strength shift, he was in Roberto Luongo's crease, mixing it up, as if he never lost a beat. At the halfway mark of the opening period, the first line of Max Pacioretty, Galchenyuk, and Gallagher had been by far the most dangerous among both teams, and were rewarded for their efforts. Just seconds after Luongo stopped a Galchenyuk one-timer, Joel Hanley pushed the puck into the slot, and Gallagher was between the hashmarks, making no mistake with his quick shot on his 19th goal of the season.
Gallagher appeared to add an assist later in the first, as he fired a shot that was expertly tipped into the Panthers' net by Andrei Markov. The goal was called back after a review showed that Pacioretty hadn't gotten onside before the puck entered the offensive zone.
The first period ended with the Habs up by one, and their first line responsible for five of the team's ten shots on net.
It took almost half of the second period for Montreal to get their momentum back, but they did so in style. Darren Dietz fired a puck up the neutral zone to Paul Byron, who skated in on Luongo with David Desharnais for a two-on-one. Byron waited for Steven Kampfer to commit to a sprawl to block a shot and passed it to Desharnais, who easily put the puck past Luongo. It was Desharnais' 11th of the year, and second in as many games.
Sixty-nine seconds later, the Habs struck again to take a stranglehold on the game. Lars Eller outplayed Brian Campbell to move the puck deep into Panthers territory before dishing it towards a streaking Torrey Mitchell, who netted his 11th. Like Desharnais, Mitchell also has scored in the last two games.
The fun would end there, and the Panthers took over. Jonathan Huberdeau set up shop behind Condon and passed into the slot to Aleksander Barkov, who took a shot on net that was unintentionally tipped off Jaromir Jagr's skate and into the net; the 26th goal of the year for the 44-year-old legend.
Barkov would net one of his own before the end of the second period, slipping a rebound past Condon for his 25th. Aaron Ekblad took the initial shot, and Barkov had to reach between Markov's skates to get to the loose puck, but wired his shot in, reducing the lead to one goal.
To start the third period, the Canadiens announced their daily defenceman injury, with Lernout suffering a lower-body injury that would keep him out of the remainder of the game. He played 6:30 in his first NHL game, registering one hit on his stat line.
A scary stick to the face of Greg Pateryn temporarily brought the Habs' blue line down to four players, though he did return after some quick repairs.
Florida turned up the heat on Montreal but Condon was sharp in the opening minutes.
A power-play goal just beyond the halfway point of the final frame tied things up, as Huberdeau finished off an incredible play by Nick Bjugstad. The giant centre from Minneapolis held the puck high, drawing Pacioretty to him before skating toward the Montreal net. He deked Alexei Emelin and shuffled a beautiful cross-ice pass to Huberdeau.
It appeared the game was headed to overtime but that wasn't meant to be. With only 29 seconds remaining on the clock, Barkov picked up his fourth point of the night, deflecting an Ekblad shot into the Montreal net. The goal was the result of some beautiful work by Barkov along the boards to free up and take possession of the puck, passing it back to the point and then getting himself into a scoring position to tip in the game winner.
The Canadiens get a shot at redemption when the face the Panthers again on Tuesday night in Montreal.
Montreal's power play only had one opportunity, but it actually put an abrupt stop to their early-game momentum. It's too late into a lost season to worry about changing it for the remaining three games on the calendar, but it will need to be addressed before October.
The Habs again had a meltdown in the second period, allowing two goals on 15 shots. They were slow out of the gate in the second frame, and once they went ahead 3-0 they let Florida take the attack to them.
Jaromir Jagr is a force to be reckoned with, and every time Montreal plays his team I am dumbfounded as to why the team has refused to sign him when he was obviously interested in joining the Canadiens
David Desharnais looked good in the first half of this game, and I am convinced if used properly, there is in fact a place for him on this squad next year.
- The first line of Pacioretty-Galchenyuk-Gallagher is a bona fide first unit, and looked threatening every time they were on the ice.
A tough loss for Mike Condon, who stopped 35 of the 39 shots he faced. He didn't give up goals in quick succession as he has done so many times this year, instead he gave the club every chance to add to their lead, and the goal-scoring simply dried up.
The officiating wasn't the cause of the Habs' loss, but they did give Florida too much time to decide to challenge the Markov no-goal. Had they dropped the puck with a normal delay, the Panthers might not have had time to review the play several times before electing to challenge. The penalty to Emelin early in the second period was also a blown call, he didn't in fact purposely remove the net from its moorings, but instead made a skilled defensive play to save a goal.
Three games left, everyone, it's almost over.