SUNRISE, Fla. – Backup goalie Chris Driedger stopped 33 shots, Mike Hoffman had a goal and an assist, and the Florida Panthers broke their eight-game home losing streak Saturday with a 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
On a night when Roberto Luongo’s number was retired, the former Florida goalie gave the team a pep talk during a pregame ceremony — and the Panthers took it to heart.
“We have to believe in ourselves right now and enjoy the moment. Work your hearts out,” the 40-year-old Luongo told players, sitting behind him on the home bench, shortly before his No. 1 became the first Panthers jersey displayed in the arena’s rafters.
Lucas Wallmark, MacKenzie Weegar and Jonathan Huberdeau also scored for Florida. Aaron Ekblad had two assists for the Panthers, who are 6-10-3 since the All-Star break.
The win moved Florida three points behind idle Toronto for third place in the Atlantic Division – with the Panthers owning a game in hand. They are also three points out of a wild-card spot.
“I thought we had a workmanlike type of game, more businesslike than we’ve had recently,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We took that awful stretch we’ve had here and turned it into a different situation when you look at where we’re sitting.”
Jake Evans scored and Charlie Lindgren made 28 saves, but the Canadiens lost their second straight.
Making just his 14th NHL appearance, Driedger (6-2-1) made his best save by denying Max Domi on a breakaway at 4:37 of the second period.
“I think he was trying to cut back there, and I just sort of read that he was going to cut back. He ended up stuffing it into my stick there,” said Driedger, adding he was a fan of Luongo’s growing up.
“One hundred per cent. I was five or six in his first year as a pro, so I’ve watched him my entire life being a goalie. He’s definitely been a role model for me,” said the 25-year-old goalie, who has a .936 save percentage.
Just after an unproductive Florida power play ended in the second, Wallmark broke the scoreless tie when Ekblad’s stretch pass was chipped near the offensive zone diagonally by Noel Acciari to Wallmark. The third-line centre skated in unimpeded, faked a slap shot and roofed in a backhand for his 12th goal at 10:22.
Obtained from Carolina at the trade deadline, Wallmark notched his first goal for the Panthers in his sixth game. Ekblad’s helper gave him 10 assists in his last 12 matches.
Florida’s penalty kill gave the team a big boost when it killed off 2:50 of a four-minute, double-minor penalty by Dominic Toninato. Ekblad’s ensuing high-sticking infraction gave Montreal 1:10 of a 5-on-3 advantage, but the Panthers killed all three penalties.
“I don’t know if it was the turning point, but we could have done a much better job,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. “5-on-3, for some reason we were shooting from far out. It would have made probably a difference in the game.”
Just after a Florida power play that carried over into the third period expired, Weegar fired home his seventh marker from above the left circle 41 seconds into the third period.
Huberdeau pushed it to 3-0 with his 23rd – a tap-in right in front of Lindgren – off a slick pass from the goal line by Erik Haula at 4:13, but Evans scored his second at 8:04 to cut it to 3-1.
Hoffman stole the puck in the defensive zone with Montreal’s net empty and blindly whipped in his 28th at 18:06 for the final margin.
NOTES: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to the media during warmups about the coronavirus. “The locker room is an intimate environment. It may be best to have media accessibility at a podium for everybody’s health and safety, not just the players’ but yours,” he responded when asked about teams possibly closing locker rooms to the media. … Canadiens LW Tomas Tatar (upper body), the club’s top point producer, travelled back to Montreal and missed his second consecutive game. … Montreal wore No. 16 stickers to honour Canadiens great Henri Richard, who died at age 84 on Friday. Richard played his entire 20-season career with Montreal, won an NHL-record 11 Stanley Cups and was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979. … The teams’ No. 1 goalies – Montreal’s Carey Price and Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky – did not play. Price (coach’s decision) missed just his second game in the past 15, while Bobrovsky (lower body) was out for his second straight.
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