Feb. 26, 2012: Sunrise, FL, USA; Florida Panthers defenseman Jason Garrison (52) checks Montreal Canadiens right wing Erik Cole (72) during the second period at the BankAtlantic Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Game Day Preview: Panthers vs. Canadiens. Road Warriors

 FLORIDA PANTHERS: 36-24-17 (87PTS.) vs. MONTREAL CANADIENS: 29-34-13 (71 PTS.)

OPPOSITION SITE: A WINNING HABIT

TSN GAMEDAY

After a short homestand against two teams that the Florida Panthers should have beaten in regulation, they now head out on a four game road trip that could do one of two things. Solidify their place in the post season for the first time in over a decade, or heaven forbid cause them to fall completely out of contention.  With the way they’ve played lately you must have the same thought yourself, as the season has virtually come down to this.  While unable to secure more than two points against the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders, the Panthers face three teams who are out  of contention, and one who will make the playoffs for the 21st consecutive season.

With a current three point lead over the Washington Capitals, this road trip will test their resolve, and if you’re like me you want to see some desperate hockey being played.  The Panthers are truly fighting for their playoff lives and the Capitals are breathing down their neck once again.  Each time however that the Caps get close, Florida seems to be able to rise to the occasion and get the job done.  Will that happen this time remains to be seen as the group is experiencing some “stress”.  Tomas Fleischmann puts it in perpsective:

“It’s the end of the season and we are a kind of a tight group right now,” Tomas Fleischmann said after netting his career-high 24th goal in Sunday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the New York Islanders. “Washington is coming after us for the playoffs. It’s a fight right now.”

The road hasn’t been kind to Florida this month as they have a 1-3-1 record and have been outscored 17-4.  The offense wasn’t much better at home, and has picked the wrong time of the year to disappear.  The team is suffering from the same things that plagued them earlier this season when they struggled to win, and the problem has once again reared it’s ugly head.  “Cuteness”.  Fancy passes, trying to sneak between defencemen, and shooting way too much from far distances.  The Panthers need to get back to driving to the net, taking shots from closer in, and being significantly more physical than they have been lately.  At times it seems as though they’re stuck in cement.

If not for goaltender Jose Theodore and his superb play of late, the Panthers could find themselves in a significantly different position instead of where they are now.  Matter of fact all season long Theodore has been the backbone of this club, and with the way he’s not only kept games close, but bailed the Panthers out of some dire situations, he should never pay for another meal again for the rest of the season.  The offence needs to step up and not only be more creative, but be more desperate. I’m not suggesting we panic yet, but the Panthers can’t sneak into the playoffs trying to win games 2-1.  I honestly thought those days were over.

Montreal is going to miss the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, and is having one of it’s worst campaigns in quite some time.  Despite their chaotic season, the play of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Erik Cole have been among the few bright spots.  The three have combined for 76 goals with Max and Cole each with 30.  Not really much else to be happy about here if your a Habs fan, and I get the impression that most can’t wait for the season to be over.

Despite their record, with six games left coach Randy Cunneyworth expects 100% effort the rest of the way:

“We still want to win hockey games,” he told the Canadiens’ official website following Monday’s practice. “Regardless of where guys are, the end result remains that we still want the ‘W.’”

The bottom line as the Panthers start this road trip, is that they need to find their way again.  Playing to the level of their recent competition has put doubt in their minds, and they are a much better team than they’ve shown.  They’ve battled an entire season and dealt with new players, injuries, slumps, and about as much doubt as one team can have placed on them.  The dressing room is a good one.  One of the best they’ve ever had, maybe even better than the one from ’96, if not close to it.  It’s time for the character to shine through.

Projected forward lines tonight:

Samuelsson-Goc-Bergenheim

Wolski-Matthias-Versteeg

Fleischmann-Weiss-Kopecky

Sturm-Smithson-Upshall

Potential Defensive pairs:

Campbell-Garrison

Weaver-Kulikov

Gudbranson-Jovanovski

Potential scratches:

Madden-Barch-Santorelli-Ellerby

Nerdy Notes/Numbers:

* Montreal has lost 388 man games to injury.  The Panthers have lost 326.

* On March 23rd Montreal forward scored the fasted hat trick in team history at 5:41 into the first period.

* Rookie defenceman Alexei Emelin of Montreal leads first year “D” men in hits with 225.

* Montreal has 330 consecutive sellouts at the Centre Bell.

* Florida leads the series 34-24-6-7

* Tomas Fleischmann has a career high 24 goals so far.  He also has 11 multi point games this season.

* Brian Campbell is second in points among NHL defencemen with 49 (4-45)

* Scott Clemmensen is 5-0-0 with a 1.65 GAA and a .942 save percentage against Montreal.

Thanks for reading.  We welcome your comments and opinions.

Don’t forget about our Road Watch this Thursday at 8:00 P.M. when the Panthers visit the Minnesota Wild.

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Tags: Erik Cole Florida Panthers Jose Theodore Max Pacioretty Montreal Canadiens

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