CANADIENS 4, PANTHERS 0
In the past few weeks, the Panthers had talked about how close they were to eighth place in the Eastern Conference, that spot marking the final playoff spot.
Now, after selling off six veterans in the past week, the Panthers are looking at a more realistic destination in the standings, one that will go much further in helping their future: Dead last – or something close to it.
The Panthers continued to inch closer to the NHL's bottom rung on Thursday as 'visiting' Montreal scored two goals off its first three shots and ran away with a 4-0 victory in front of a sold-out, Canadien-centric crowd at BankAtlantic Center.
Florida is now 12 points out of eighth place in the east, but came into Thursday just nine in front of Edmonton – the league's worst team and current favorite to pick up the top pick in the June draft. If Florida finishes in the bottom three – as it did last year – it's assured a top three pick and a chance at the No. 1 selection. The Panthers are just two points ahead of the Islanders for that bottom-three positioning.
“For me, we're trying to win games,'' coach Pete DeBoer said. “Management, I'm sure they're looking at auditioning players. When you're standing behind the bench, you don't feel good about having tryouts in March and April. I've said it before: I could care less about the draft. I want to win games. Winning is as contagious as having good draft picks. We have to make sure we keep pushing [for] that culture.''
The Panthers have now lost 16 of their past 21 games and are averaging a single goal a game in their past six. So one could not really be sure if it was the large amount of Canadiens fans who descended on the Sunrise arena who were booing the Panthers when they came onto the ice for warm-ups – or just fed up fans of what was technically the home team.
Regardless, the Canadiens had plenty to cheer about on Thursday as Montreal dominated Florida from start to finish.
Montreal started the scoring 5:02 into the game when Hal Gill ripped a shot from 60 feet out. With a screen in front of the net, starting goalie Tomas Vokoun never saw it coming. Less than four minutes later, Andrei Kostitsyn fired a shot from the left circle that got past new Florida defenseman Alexander Sulzer and past Vokoun.
Backup Scott Clemmensen was quickly sent in, Vokoun kicking the dasher boards in disgust as he skated off the ice. DeBoer said he didn't blame Vokoun for either goal, but, “we needed a change.''
After stopping all three shots he faced during his time in the opening period, Clemmensen gave up a soft goal to David Desharnais 4:59 into the second. Montreal would add to the Panthers misery in the third when Lars Eller walked in on Clemmensen and scored fairly easily.
Montreal goalie Carey Price, on the other hand, was sharp and stopped 30 shots to beat the Panthers for only the third time in six starts against them. Price stopped a number of scoring chances in front of the net – David Booth is still shaking his head at his opportunity in the second – and helped the Canadiens win the season series 3-1.
“We're professionals here and it doesn't matter what place you are in,'' Mike Weaver said. “We have some new faces and bodies. We just have to work hard, outwork the other team. I don't think we did that tonight.''
Florida had some of its best chances on its final two power play opportunities of the game, although the Panthers didn't get anything past Price. The Panthers are now 0-for-16 on the power play since scoring against the Islanders on Feb. 21, and went 0-for-16 with an advantage in four games against Montreal this season.
DeBoer said Thursday morning that while he's not in any hurry to name Bryan McCabe's replacement as Florida's team captain, one could be named soon.
The leader, DeBoer said, is center Stephen Weiss.
“We'll make some decisions. We have some good people here,'' DeBoer said. “Stephen Weiss is probably at the front of the line because of his tenure here and what he's meant to the organization. He's in this for the long haul, wants to see it to the other end. That kind of commitment deserves some recognition.''
Weiss, who is Florida's active leader in games played with the franchise, has been with the organization since he was the fourth overall pick at the 2001 Draft held in Sunrise. Weiss said he would be honored if chosen.
“To be a captain of an NHL team is pretty special,'' Weiss said. “That's not something you dream of as a kid though. You just want to make it to the NHL. That's just an added bonus. It shows your performance and the kind of person you are, and that's an honor. I've been through a lot of things here, but that would be a nice accomplishment.''
-- Mike Weaver, in his first year with the Panthers, joined Weiss and Marty Reasoner as an assistant captain on Thursday. Weaver replaced the traded Bryan Allen.
-- Injured wingers Evgeny Dadonov and Ryan Carter skated before Thursday's morning skate although DeBoer said they were both out at least until next week. Dadonov suffered a broken finger on Feb. 2 at Montreal and has had his cast removed. He still hasn't been able to handle the puck, however.
Carter, who says he has a problem around his rib cage, hasn't played since Feb. 10 when he was still with Carolina. The Panthers acquired the injured Carter in the Cory Stillman deal last week.
Canadiens Win Home Game on the Road, Beat Florida Panthers 4-0 ... Panthers Within Two Points of 28th
CANADIENS 4, PANTHERS 0