It was after the game between the Montreal Canadiens and Florida Panthers back on December 30 that we felt the playoff hopes were dashed for the Canadian team. Playing the team directly above them in the standings, the Canadiens lost a four-point game, failing to score a goal in the process, and showing little hope of turning things around.
The Canadiens are still among the bottom handful of teams in the NHL, while the Panthers have continued their charge. Florida’s 2-0 win in that last meeting gave them a five-game winning streak at the time, and they just had a six-game run of two-point efforts snapped by the Tampa Bay Lightning in overtime. The Panthers are 13-3-1 in their past 17 games, and that has them just two points out of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Florida has played fewer games than just about every other team in the NHL, with tonight’s game being their 65th of the season. The bad news is that the games they have in hand will come against the Boston Bruins — who also sit at 64 games played — with the two teams scheduled to battle four times in the final month of action. Those games could very well determine Florida’s fate.
Before they can get to that point, the Panthers will need to keep themselves close in the race by beating a string of mostly non-playoff teams looking to play spoiler in their next sequence of game, and that starts with a five-game homestand that begins versus Montreal this evening.
How to watch
Puck drop: 7:30 PM EST / 4:30 PM PST
In Canada: TSN2 (English), RDS (French)
In the Panthers region: FS-F
Elsewhere: NHL.tv/NHL GameCentre Live, NHL Center Ice
Tale of the Tape
If the Canadiens are to play the role of spoiler, they will need to dig deep to match the offence of a team that has been scoring at least three goals at will. The Habs will be relying on Brendan Gallagher to keep his stellar season going; a performance made more impressive in the context of the struggles of the team around him.
He scored his 24th goal of the season on an incredible solo effort in his last game to tie his career high, and has 16 games to achieve the 30-goal milestone. With a decimated supporting cast, it would be an exceptional feat.
The Panthers have four players with at least 20 goals, led by emerging star Aleksander Barkov at centre. The Finn has 66 points in 63 games played, already smashing his assists record and well on his way to setting a new mark in goals. He’s been playing mostly with former KHL standout Evgenii Dadonov, and with Nick Bjugstad on his opposite flank, who recorded a hat trick in the game on Tuesday night, it’s making for a formidable top line.
The other half of the top six isn’t bad either, with the goal-scoring of Vincent Trocheck paired with the playmaking of Jonathan Huberdeau.
The Panthers have the ability to fill the net any time their take the ice, and a Canadiens team that had struggled to contain the oppostion’s top forwards this season. even with a healthy defence corps, will get a stern test this evening.