Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers fall to Montreal Canadiens in defensive struggle

The Panthers and Canadiens played a brand of hockey in the first two periods Thursday night that had even the most ardent fan wishing they had spent Valentine’s Day evening somewhere, anywhere, else.

It was such a slow game, the thought of waiting in line for a table at an overpriced restaurant or fighting last-minute shoppers for a shiny box of chocolates at Publix sounded more appealing than falling asleep at the lifeless BB&T Center.

Luckily, the third period served as a pick-me-up bouquet of sorts to those who braved the boredom.

Goalie Jose Theodore needed to make a big save 25 seconds into the third, but the Canadiens didn’t win it until Rene Bourque poked a puck through in overtime to give Montreal a 1-0 victory.

“I thought they kept coming, put pressure on consistently,’’ Theodore said. “I think when people see a 0-0 game they think it was a slow game, but from my side, they were coming pretty hard.’’

The Panthers, winless in their past three games, have picked up at least one point in six of seven games by going 3-1-3. Florida, which was 4-0 against the Canadiens for the first time last season, is now 0-1-1 against Montreal in 2013.

“We’ve lost some games in overtime but we’re trying to move forward,’’ coach Kevin Dineen said. “This was a tough game for us. We got outworked for a stretch until we finally decided to play a simple game. Things followed from there. But it wasn’t enough to bring it home.’’

The teams played a scoreless game until Bourque knocked in a loose puck 2:10 into the extra frame. Theodore finished with 31 saves, and Carey Price stopped 26 for the shutout.

Florida played a tough defensive game — and got two key faceoff wins from Jarred Smithson in the final minute of regulation — to at least salvage a point. The Panthers have lost three games in the overtime session, although they beat Philadelphia in a shootout last Thursday.

“We didn’t have many chances in the first two, but I thought we were pretty good in the third,’’ said Tomas Fleischmann, whose stick snapped when he was fed a picture-perfect pass from Shawn Matthias midway through the third.

Price didn’t have to do much work on the Panthers as he vacuumed up every shot he faced and left few rebounds for Florida to pounce on.

The Panthers had a few chances against Price in the opening 40 minutes.

Florida almost took the initial lead in the first period when rookie Jonathan Huberdeau — who grew up a huge Canadiens fan a few minutes away from Montreal — tried to force a feed from Peter Mueller past Price from the prime seats in front of the net. Price gobbled the puck up.

“A goalie like him, you have to test him for 60 minutes, and we probably did for five,’’ center Drew Shore said. “It was a pretty easy night for him.’’

Luckily for the Panthers, the Canadiens seemed to have their heads back on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale where they spent the better part of the past two days and not on playing hockey.

Theodore, rocked in giving up five goals during his previous start Saturday in Washington, brought his top game as expected against the Canadiens after having a few days to stew.

“It’s always nice to bounce back,’’ Theodore said. “I had three wins before the Washington game — and that’s not the way I want to play. I wanted to bounce back and we got a big point out of the game.’’

Theodore, who won the Vezina Trophy for the NHL’s top goalie as well as league MVP with the Canadiens in 2002, made 21 stops in the first 40 minutes and was sharp when Montreal challenged.

“Goaltending was the story,’’ Dineen said. “It was excellent at both ends. When you’re dealing with a professional like Jose, you know he was waiting for that next opportunity. I thought he was solid.’’

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