The Panthers’ stay at the top of the Atlantic Division lasted just one day as Montreal took it back by beating Tampa Bay on Monday night.
Florida returned the favor Tuesday.
By beating the Canadiens 3-1 in front of a sellout crowd of 19,822 at BB&T Center, the Panthers not only reclaimed the top spot but will holding onto it into the New Year.
The Panthers don’t play again until Saturday allowing either the Canadiens (second place with 45 points) or Boston (third with 44 points) to take over first on New Year’s Day after those two meet in this season’s Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots’ home field in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
“It’s a lot of fun to come here. We’re pretty confident and enjoy playing together,” said Sasha Barkov, who helped his team tie a franchise record with its seventh consecutive victory by scoring twice.
“We know how to play the game, know how to win. It’s a lot of fun. Of course we want to win every game, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”
Barkov continued his hot stretch as he scored his fourth goal in Florida’s past two victories.
The Canadiens, playing in front of many of their vacationing fans, took the initial lead on a power play chance midway through the first.
Yet, for much of the game, Florida dominated as it has during his run of 13 victories in its past 16.
“I thought the boys played a really strong game, perhaps our best of the year,” said Roberto Luongo, a Montreal native whose team lost four of five to the Canadiens last year.
“It was a great game for our team, especially with what was at stake.”
The Panthers tied the score on Barkov’s first, as he took a Dmitry Kulikov delivery and beat Ben Scrivens as Jaromir Jagr played blocker in front of the net.
Just over a minute into the second, Jagr gave Florida the lead it needed by driving in on Scrivens on a breakout and burying Jonathan Huberdeau’s leader.
“We’re playing to our strength,” Jagr said.
The Panthers kept up the pressure but Scrivers — acquired early Monday morning from Edmonton and playing his first for the Habs on Tuesday — stood tall until Barkov beat him again with 11:07 left.
Florida then clamped things down and didn’t give Montreal much opportunity.
With just over a minute left, Florida’s faithful began serenading those in Montreal bleu, blanc and rouge goodbye.
“We played a great game, played hard and competed,” coach Gerard Gallant said.
“I thought both teams skated well and we had a lot of chances. … The guys believe in themselves. They know they’re a good hockey team and if they play the right way, can beat anyone in the league.”
▪ Huberdeau and his family has long traveled to South Florida from Montreal to see their beloved Canadiens play the Panthers around the holidays.
On Tuesday, Huberdeau played in his third such game.
For the second consecutive year, Huberdeau’s younger sister Josiane sang the Canadian national anthem before the puck dropped.
“It’s going to be a fun night, no pressure,” the Panthers’ top-line winger said beforehand. “I’m going to go out there, have fun like I always do. I can’t wait to hear my sister sing.”
▪ The Panthers’ seven-game winning streak ties the record for longest in team history with Florida previously doing it in 2008.
The team has won seven consecutive games four times.
Florida has also won a franchise-tying five consecutive home games.
▪ Florida ended December with 22 points — the most it had ever accrued in a single month in franchise history. The previous high was 21 points previously hit in March 2006.