Niemi’s 52 saves were one shy of the single-game record by a Montreal goaltender shared by Wayne Thomas, his former position coach in San Jose, and battery-mate Carey Price.
The Panthers dominated the first period, out-shooting the Canadiens 16-7 and scoring the frame’s only goal when Mike Hoffman scored on a beautiful one-handed, backhanded finish at 14:11 after Denis Malgin forced a turnover.
In the second period, the Cats put up another 16 shots, but couldn’t finish, while Les Habitants scored three times (and had another goal called off) to take control of the game.
Keith Yandle was sent to the box for slashing late in the first, leading to Shane Weber’s one-time blast that tied the tilt 29 seconds into the middle stanza. Jonathan Drouin teed up Weber and Joel Armia collected the secondary assist.
Another Weber drive would result in Montreal’s second goal at 10:44. This time he missed the net and Aaron Ekblad failed to corral the rebound off the back boards No such problem for Phillip Danault, who quickly backhanded the puck in after it came to him through Ekblad’s skates and stick.
After having one waved off, Max Domi finally ended a long drought with his first goal in 17 games when he put in a rebound after James Reimer made a sterling save on Paul Byron’s redirection bid on the doorstep. Reimer got tangled up with Mark Pysyk in the crease after making the initial stop and couldn’t get back up.
Florida had plenty of chances to close the gap in the third, only to be stymied by Niemi, who stopped Aleksander Barkov early on, then came up big to deny Pysyk and then stone Henrik Borgstrom on the rebound in a later sequence, and then he gloved a power-play attempt by a wide-open Hoffman soon after that.
While the Panthers were busy not finding the back of the net, rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi found it in style to ice the game with 5:38 remaining. The slight 18-year-old skated through Mike Matheson after the defenseman’s sweep attempt failed and then roofed the puck after Reimer went down to challenge. Ugh... Artturi Lehkonen and Jordie Benn drew the assists on the goal. Benn’s helper gave him 100 career NHL points.
Brendan Gallagher finished things off with an unassisted empty-netter at 18:24.
After a lackluster effort in Vancouver, at least the Panthers, who are now 0-5-2 in their last seven, came to play in this one, launching a season-high 53 shots at Niemi. That said, they fell by the same 5-1 score that they did on Sunday. After going pointless against the Canucks, Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov were all held off the score sheet again, and there was no secondary scoring to be found. On the other side, Niemi enjoyed a career night, the Habs scored their first power-play goal at Bell Centre since December 1, Domi scored his first goal in five weeks and a lightweight 18-year-old went through a defender on an eight-year deal to clinch the game with a highlight reel goal. All this for a team that played a tough game against rival Boston the night before. Got problems? The Panthers will show up and allow you to solve them. Florida will limp home to take on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday before facing the Predators in Nashville on Saturday. San Jose, Nashville again, and Vegas follow that. It’s not a stretch to think this losing streak can and will get into the double digits.