Tomas Tater scored twice, including the go-ahead goal in the third period, and backup goaltender Antii Niemi stopped 23 shots in lieu of Carey Price as the Montreal Canadiens dealt the Florida Panthers a stinging 5-3 defeat on home ice.
In their first game back from the holiday break, the Panthers got off to an unfortunate start when Brendan Gallagher forced Mike Matheson into coughing up the puck from behind his own net, allowing Tatar to seize the late Christmas gift in front and beat Roberto Luongo on the backhand just 35 seconds after opening puck drop.
Nicholas Deslauriers had Victor Mete’s rising shot from point deflect off of him and then the ice on its way over Luongo 2:16 later to extend the lead.
After carrying into the Montreal zone, Mike Hoffman regained possession of the puck after losing it and sent a backhand pass into the slot that rookie Henrik Borgstrom snapped home to halve the deficit at the 8:01 mark.
Denis Malgin tied the game at 13:53 when he whacked a bouncing puck into the net after Troy Brouwer’s pass attempt deflected off Paul Bryon’s skate and fortuitously rebounded back in front.
The Panthers dodged a bullet late in the frame when Jesperi Kotkaniemi whipped a wrister from the left circle by Luongo’s glove and off the post.
A scoreless second period saw Niemi come up big on Jared McCann’s redirection bid and Luongo made fine stops on Max Domi (on a 2-on-1 break) and Byron.
A tripping penalty on Frank Vatrano and a delay of game call on MacKenzie Weegar proved costly when Tatar put the Habs up 3-2 five seconds after the end of a 5-on-3 when he snapped Jonathan Drouin’s pass under Luogno’s glove from the right face-off dot at 8:54 of the third.
Andrew Shaw tracked down Brett Kulak’s chip in, fending off Matheson in the process, and fed Artturi Lehkonen from beneath the goal line and the Finn quickly buried it to put Montreal up by deux for a second time with 4:25 remaining.
Keith Yandle slapped in a power-play goal from the point after some nifty passing between Hoffman and Aleksander Barkov, with 1:16 to go to give the Cats a shot at a late comeback.
Unfortunately, it was not to be as Jonathan Huberdeau rang the iron and a deflection off Barkov’s skate went just wide, with Niemi coming up with a short-side save on Hoffman on the subsequent rebound before hope was finally extinguished by Jonathan Drouin’s empty-netter at 19:37.
Instead of pulling within five points of the Canadiens with two games in hand, the Panthers let this one slip away and as a result, now find themselves eight points behind Boston, again with two in hand, for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. Another tough night for Matheson, who pretty much assisted on Montreal’s first goal and later failed to keep Shaw from setting up the fourth, which proved to be the game-winner. It was a pretty even game statistically, except in giveaway department where Cats had 11 to the Habs 5. The Panthers must find a way to play cleaner hockey or they will continue to middle. The slow start (behind 2-0 less than three minutes in) in a game of this magnitude was also frustrating, although they did a nice job of rebounding to tie the score. As we’ve seen too many times this season, the Panthers just couldn’t come up with the key goal in a tight game, going the entire second period and most of the third without scoring until Yandle converted on a late power play. Florida’s top line only produced two shots on goal... huh?
Video Recap (courtesy of NHL.com)