MONTREAL – The Panthers run to their first postseason appearance in over a decade couldn't have been set up better.
Following a hard-fought win in Philadelphia, the Panthers had seven straight games against the worst teams in the league.
After losing the first three, the Panthers finally beat one of them.
Thanks to a long-range goal from Mikael Samuelsson in the third, a shootout goal from Wojtek Wolski and stellar play in net from Scott Clemmensen, the Panthers swept the season series from the Canadiens for the first time in franchise history with a 3-2 win at Bell Center on Tuesday night.
More importantly than sweeping the Canadiens in what has been a disastrous year for the storied franchise is that Florida came a little closer to not only ending the NHL record postseason drought, but winning the franchise's first division title.
With the red-hot Sabres beating host Washington on Tuesday, the Panthers have a five point lead on the Capitals atop the Southeast Division with under two weeks left in the season. Florida visits the Capitals next Thursday.
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen acted as if he didn't know the outcome of the Washington game before meeting the media, yet it was obvious he, too, had been scoreboard watching. Florida went from almost getting no points in the standings to picking up two within a few minutes. Fans in Washington cursed; the Panthers celebrated.
“Lets not kid ourselves, we're all doing that,'' Dineen said. “It's a nice win for us. Give Buffalo credit. They were counted out three weeks ago. But we have road games left and have to take care of business before we get too excited.''
Dineen somewhat surprisingly started Clemmensen against Jose Theodore's old team – it's well known Theodore does not like playing in Montreal since leaving – although Clemmensen has definitely earned the playing time. Clemmensen stopped 27 shots – including five in overtime – to pick up the win. In the shootout, Wolski gave Florida the only lead on his first offering as Clemmensen stopped one and had the other two shots faced go off the iron.
Fine by him.
“We'll take it,'' said Clemmensen, whose team 'improved' to 6-10 in shootouts and 7-15 in overtime. “You don't know what to expect against a team that's out of it. To get two points when Washington lost is huge. But it's going to be tough. We're on the road still, but this was a good way to start it. We have a game in hand, but that's meaningless if we don't win it. We have to take care of our own.''
The Panthers took a 1-0 lead with 6:56 left in the opening period after Wolski flashed up the right wall of the ice and blistered a shot past Carey Price. The lead didn't last, however, as Montreal tied it 56 seconds later when Erik Cole got his 31st of the year as Stephen Weiss served a holding penalty.
Florida was definitely the aggressor in the second and third periods, with the Panthers outshooting Montreal 13-4 in the second period alone. Problem was, Tomas Fleischmann coughed up the puck at center ice leading to a 3-on-none rush that Louis LeBlanc finished with a backhander past Clemmensen.
“You give up a 3-on-0 and it's, 'eww.' We had 5-on-1 versus Winnipeg and those are plays you look back on in the summer,'' Dineen said. “At the end of the day, you don't critique the wins too bad. We played a solid road game and had some bite in the third. We were fairly tenacious and confident. We kept pushing.''
The Panthers added another one of their top prospects to the fold on Tuesday as Drew Shore announced he was leaving the University of Denver to sign with Florida. Shore will sign a three-year entry level deal with the Panthers but will be on a amateur try-out for the remainder of this season. Shore will play with Florida's AHL team in San Antonio for the time being and is expected to take part in training camp.
Shore, 21, was a second round pick of the Panthers in 2009. In three seasons with the nationally-ranked Pioneers, Shore scored 50 goals with 68 assists in 123 games. As a junior this season, he scored 22 goals with 31 assists.
“I think he's ready for this. Timing is everything and we're excited to have him,'' general manager Dale Tallon said before Tuesday's game. “He has good size, is smart. He's a good player with a bright future.''
() Blake Geoffrion, the first South Florida born NHL player, wasn't in the lineup Tuesday as he has been scratched the past six games after playing in the first eight after being called up from the minors. Geoffrion, the grandson of Hall of Famer Bernie 'Boom Boom' Geoffrion, was born at Plantation General but left Broward County when his family moved to Tennessee when he was 1.