The Florida Panthers go into 2012 atop the Southeast Division this late in a season for the first time in more than a decade.
Yet as good as that sounds, the Panthers were in no mood to celebrate after Saturday night's 3-2 win over Montreal at BankAtlantic Center.
And it was all because of a 30 minute span between the end of the first period and the middle of the second.
First, enforcer Krys Barch – brought to Florida in a trade with Dallas last month – was ejected after linesman Darren Gibbs overheard him use a racial slur during a scrum near the Florida net.
Barch's slur, according to an NHL official, was aimed toward Montreal's P.K. Subban, who is black.
“No comment,'' general manager Dale Tallon said as he was heading downstairs during the second intermission. “I don't know what happened yet.''
According to rule 23.7 of the league's official guide, a player can be ejected for various reasons, including spitting on an opponent or spectator and “racial taunts and slurs.''
Panthers general partner Cliff Viner was visibly shaken when told of why Barch was tossed from the game.
“This is not what the character of this organization is about. Period,'' Viner said. “I'm devastated by that kind of behavior. That is not what we're about as an organization, a team, coaching staff, hockey operations.
"Dale, I'm sure, will be very critical of this. I hope they talk to the team and let them know this is unacceptable. You play hard, you fight hard. But that's not part of any competition.''
Said coach Kevin Dinnen: “We have a broken up player back there. He feels extremely bad that there was an insinuation that something inappropriate was said. Now it's a league matter. Obviously the Florida Panthers and Krys Barch are really shaken up about this.''
Subban told the Montreal media that he didn't hear a slur and that no one else on his team did either. Erik Cole added that he heard something but wasn't sure what. To paraphrase, he said it could have been something related to Subban's parents.
To make things worse, at the 4:41 mark of the second period, goalie Jose Theodore was forced to leave after getting run over by Montreal's Mike Blunden and teammate Dmitry Kulikov. Although Theodore was hit in the head and shoulder after being hit, it appears he suffered a knee or leg injury as he fell awkwardly.
Dineen said Theodore would be out for some time and Jacob Markstrom would be recalled from AHL San Antonio.
Scott Clemmensen, who was pulled in the opening period of Friday's 4-1 loss to the Rangers after giving up three goals, was put in and stopped 17 of 18 shots faced as Florida rallied from an early 1-0 deficit.
“It was good for us to get a win and get back on the right track,'' Clemmensen said. “Any time you get pulled, you want to get right back in there. I didn't expect it to happen tonight and I sure didn't want it to be because Jose got hurt.''
As has traditionally been the case, the Panthers played a road game at home against the Canadiens as the announced attendance of 20,098 – second largest of the season – was dominated by fans cheering on the northern visitors.
The Canadiens jumped to a 1-0 lead when Travis Moen snapped a slap shot past Theodore 5:37 into the game. The score stayed that way until the second when Tomas Fleischmann roofed a shot on Carey Price on a power play at 3:46 of the second.
Shawn Matthias made it 2-1 on his seventh of the season by wristing a shot from 35 feet out just over three minutes into the third. Fleischmann got his second of the night by scoring into an empty net with 40.2 seconds remaining. Cole gave the Canadiens hope by scoring with 29.8 remaining but Clemmensen held on.
AROUND THE ICE
Panthers winger Tomas Kopecky was not suspended for punching New York's Mike Del Zotto in the final seconds of Friday's loss. Both Kopecky and Del Zotto were fined the league maximum $2,500. Del Zotto engaged Kopecky with a high stick to the head near the goal crease.
“I give the powers that be a lot of credit because they analyzed the situation, looked at a lot of video,'' Dineen said Saturday morning. “At the end of it, there will be fines handed down to both Tomas and some of their players. There is still some evaluation as far as their actions.''
() Barch got a game misconduct on Friday when he came out for the face off following the scrap. Dineen said he put Barch out there to send a message to the Rangers. With Barch's actions on Saturday, it's unlikely he plays for the Panthers Thursday at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.
“All of a sudden [the Rangers] threw out some more meat-heads at the end of the game,'' Dineen said, “and when they do that, you don't have a choice but to .-.-. we're going to come with the best response for us. The officials did a good job of controlling the situation, although there wasn't much to it.''
() Florida is 2-0 against the Canadiens this season.
() The Panthers will take Sunday off and return to their practice facility in Coral Springs on Monday morning around 10 a.m. for a workout. It is open to the public and admission is free.