Panthers down Canadiens, keep pace in battle for division lead
Florida, Boston, Tampa vying for top spot in Atlantic
Bouncing back from losses has been a strength for the Florida Panthers and they did it again on Tuesday night.
A late collapse cost them a win 24 hours earlier in a 3-2 setback to the Islanders in New York, but they made that up with a clear 4-1 victory over the injury-riddled Montreal Canadiens.
"We're still a young team," said veteran Jaromir Jagr. "It was a tough loss but we knew we could make it up today. From the first shift we played good."
Vincent Trochek scored a goal and set up one by Jiri Hudler, while Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov also scored for Florida (39-21-9), which has won three of its last four games to stay in the tight battle for first place in the Atlantic Division with Tampa Bay and Boston.
Trocheck has two goals and six assists in his last four games, while Jagr, who is third in all-time NHL scoring, got his 1,111th career assist on Barkov's goal.
The division lead changes almost daily, but Jagr says he likes it that way.
"Through my experience, it's nice to win a division, but the main thing is to be playing very good hockey going into the playoffs, if we make it," the 43-year-old said. "I saw a lot of teams that clinch five or ten games before.
"They are resting players and then, in the first round, they're upset. The team wasn't ready to play against teams that were fighting until the last game to make the playoffs. It's good to win it, but on the other side, I'd rather fight to the end."
The Panthers finish a three-game road trip Thursday night in Toronto, where the Leafs helped Florida by beating Tampa Bay.
Red-hot Alex Galchenyuk, with his 12th goal in 10 games, scored for Montreal (32-32-6), which lost a second in a row at home. The Canadiens move on to face the Sabres in Buffalo on Wednesday night.
"They're a good team, they're primed up and getting ready for the playoffs," Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty said of the Panthers. "They made big deals at the deadline.
"No positive out of that game. They will have success for many years because their core group of guys know how to play the game."
Florida outshot the Canadiens 36-28.
The Panthers dominated the first period and scored at 11:46 when Trocheck finished a tic-tac-toe rush with Brian Campbell and Reilly Smith with a wrist shot inside the near post.
Bjugstad batted an Aaron Ekblad rebound out of the air past Mike Condon on a power play 5:10 into the middle period.
The Panthers jumped on soft defensive play by Montreal as Trocheck slid the puck into the crease for Hudler to push in at 12:45.
The teams were each a man short when Galchenyuk wristed a shot from the right circle past Al Montoya at 17:23.
Barkov got favourable position on Mark Barberio to take a feed from Jonathan Huberdeau and score into an open side 11:32 into the third frame.