As Montreal Canadiens top Florida Panthers, teams going in different directions

The struggling, slow-starting Panthers couldn’t catch up to high-flying Montreal.

03/11/2013 12:00 AM

03/16/2014 9:49 PM

Jacob Markstrom’s most memorable win in his young career came early last season in Montreal.

In just his third start, Markstrom made 40 saves against the Canadiens for what was one of many victories for the Panthers that year.

These aren’t the same two teams they were back then. Not even close.

On Sunday, the much-improved Canadiens scored twice in the first and took a four-goal lead before beating the reeling Panthers 5-2 at BB&T Center.

Montreal has won four of five and sits atop the Eastern Conference; Florida has lost 13 of 16 and is dead last in the entire league.

With Sunday’s loss, the Panthers failed to beat Montreal during a season for the first time in franchise history. Montreal won all three meetings between the two in this shortened season. The all-time series is also now tied.

“This is unacceptable. We’ve been through this before, and it’s not fun. I’m sick of losing,” said Shawn Matthias, who scored his fourth goal in six games to make it a 4-2 game in the third.

“We need to change things, turn this ship around. It’s frustrating, and it has gone on long enough. They were ripe for the picking, and we didn’t take advantage of it.”

Despite playing without Brandon Prust, who separated a shoulder Saturday in Tampa, Montreal jumped all over the Panthers early on and scored twice in the opening two periods.

The Canadiens looked to be losing their legs in the third, but just as the Panthers pulled to within striking range, Kris Versteeg took a penalty and the Canadiens’ power play came back up to the plate.

Michael Ryder, acquired in a deal with Dallas last month, deflected a P.K. Subban shot past Markstrom with 4:17 remaining. Those two hooked up for a similar goal on a Marcel Goc penalty midway through the first.

“They are one of the top teams in the league — and look like it,” coach Kevin Dineen said.

“They went from one of the worst teams to one of the best and basically it’s because they’re working hard. That’s a page of their book we need to take.”

Roles have been reversed among the two squads as the Panthers won the Southeast Division last season and were the No. 3 seed in the East, while the Canadiens finished last for the first time in their storied history.

This year, Montreal has shot to the top of the East with 38 points in 26 games. Florida has just 20 points.

Sunday, the Canadiens did what they wanted against the Panthers as they kept the puck in the Florida zone for much of the night and outshot the Panthers 38-16 — and 25-9 in the final 40 minutes.

Markstrom ended up with 33 saves after facing 38 shots on goal. Montreal backup Peter Budaj only faced 16 shots all night and gave up one of Florida’s goals to his own teammate as Francis Bouillon didn’t clear a puck down low — instead he put it into the net for the Panthers’ first goal to make it 4-1.

Matthias later pulled Florida within two, and it looked like the Panthers might have something cooking. Florida’s third-period comeback was too little and too late as the Panthers have a bad habit of falling behind early all season.

The Panthers have trailed from the start in seven of its past nine games. The Panthers won just one of those contests as they have been behind by an average of 3-0 in those games in which they have initially trailed.

“We need better starts,” rookie Jonathan Huberdeau said. “It’s always 2-0 after five minutes, and it’s hard to come back in those kind of games.”

• Versteeg was in the lineup for the second consecutive game after missing 12 games with a chest injury
• The Panthers sent winger Jon Rheault back to their AHL affiliate in San Antonio. Rheault, 26, made his NHL debut last week for the Panthers against Winnipeg and appeared in three games.

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