The Canadian Press
MONTREAL–The Florida Panthers are inching closer to a playoff spot.
Roberto Luongo’s 28-save shutout lifted the Panthers to a 2-0 victory over the injury-riddled Montreal Canadiens last night.
It left them three points back of New Jersey for the eighth and last Eastern Conference playoff spot, with two games in hand on the Devils.
“As a team, we have to remember to just stay in the moment,” said Luongo, whose club is 10-2-1 in its last 13 games.
“Right now we’ll enjoy tonight but we have another big game [Tuesday night in Ottawa],” he noted.
“Sometimes you get frustrated when you’re trying to chase teams and they seem to keep winning,” Luongo remarked.
“So we just want to focus on our job and make sure we put our best game forward on a nightly basis, and that stuff will take care of itself in the end.”
Aaron Ekblad scored in the first period while Aleksander Barkov got one in the third for Florida (36-27-7), which had 41 shots but saw Montreal goalie Antti Niemi keep his team in the game with several glittering saves, including two stops on Evgenii Dadonov breakaways.
Montreal (26-34-12), coming off a 4-0 defeat Saturday night in Toronto, was shut out for a second game in a row and a 12th time this season–three of them against Florida.
It was Luongo’s third shutout of the season and the 76th of his career, tying the Montreal native with Ed Belfour and Tony Esposito for ninth place all-time.
“It doesn’t mean much now,” he remarked. “Our goal is to make the playoffs and get some wins down the stretch.
“Not thinking about that kind of stuff now,” Luongo added. “Our goal is to be in the post season so 100 percent of my focus is on that.”
Nearly half the Canadiens’ lineup was call-ups from the AHL and they looked overwhelmed by the Panthers at times.
“To me it’s evident–we don’t have our team,” said coach Claude Julien, who is missing key pieces like defenceman Shea Weber and forwards Max Pacioretty, Phillip Danault, and Andrew Shaw.
“Right now we’re not a good team.
“It’s not that the players aren’t good,” Julien stressed. “We have a lot of injuries and even some of the players who aren’t [inexperienced] are getting more ice time than they’re used to.
“I’m confident that when we start next season, we’ll have better balance in our lineup than we have now,” he vowed.
The opening 10 minutes saw two fights–one of which had Ekblad sparring with Nicolas Deslauriers.
It may have fired up the big defenceman because he stole a puck from Michael McCarron, deked past defenceman Jeff Petry, and beat Niemi with a move to the backhand for an unassisted goal at 18:31.
Jacob De La Rose thought he had one back for Montreal 17 seconds later, but a video review showed Alex Galchenyuk was offside by a toenail and it was waved off.
Barkov got his 26th of the season at 6:23 of the third frame when his shot from the left side went in off Montreal forward Logan Shaw.
“There’s a lot of confidence in this room,” said Ekblad. “Wins never come easy, but a lot of us are feeling very confident, making smart plays, and doing the right things.
“It’s a fun game to play.”
The Panthers are in a stretch with seven of eight games on the road.
Star goalie Carey Price returned to the Montreal lineup from a concussion suffered Feb. 20.
He backed up Niemi last night but may be ready to start when the Canadiens play Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
Elsewhere in the NHL, Arizona beat Calgary 5-2, L.A. nipped Minnesota 4-3 (OT), Columbus topped Boston 5-4 (OT), and Nashville blanked Buffalo 4-0.