Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers beat Canadiens, clinch first Atlantic Division title

Florida Panthers center Nick Bjugstad reacts after the Florida Panthers win

Nick Bjugstad talks about the Florida Panthers winning the NHL's Atlantic Division in Montreal.
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Nick Bjugstad talks about the Florida Panthers winning the NHL's Atlantic Division in Montreal.

Five minutes after the Panthers beat the host Canadiens 4-1, a sweaty team sat in a cramped locker room watching French television.

The Tampa Bay-New York Rangers game was on the tube and the Panthers were glued to it.

Soon, a roar was heard from the locker room and jubilant players began to emerge.

The Panthers had clinched the Atlantic Division title and they were ready to celebrate with pizza slices and a two-hour bus ride to Ottawa.

"Finally, we won the division,'' said Nick Bjugstad, who scored the game-winner late in the second period.

"It was fun. We didn't have Champagne or anything -- I don't think we need that -- but it's fun to see what we've accomplished this year and how far we have come. This is a proud group of guys. We're ready to keep rolling.''

Said Roberto Luongo: "We wanted to get this done as quick as possible and we had a little help. We wanted to go into the last couple of games knowing it was wrapped up."

Roberto Luongo reacts to Florida Panthers winning the NHL Atlantic Division.

By virtue of Florida winning Tuesday and the rival Lightning losing, the Panthers take ownership of just the second division title in franchise history with two games remaining this season.

The Panthers, who trailed these Canadiens by 15 points at Thanksgiving, have done a complete turnaround.

Tuesday's win also gave the Panthers a record 101 points this season.

"This is great, to win the division title is a great honor for us,'' coach Gerard Gallant said.

On the ice, Florida jumped all over the slumping Canadiens as Sasha Barkov scored 10 seconds in.

Florida, which has won four consecutive games, took the opening face off, working the puck deep into the zone with Barkov continuing his barrage on goalie Mike Condon with a sharp wrist shot.

Barkov scored twice and had a hand in all four goals in Florida's 4-3 win over the Canadiens last Saturday in Sunrise.

The Panthers trailed 3-0 in that game yet led or were tied for the entirety of Tuesday's rematch.

"I really didn't expect that, but I had a good chance to shoot it,'' Barkov said. "This is fun, we're happy to win the division but we still have to win 16 more. In the second period I saw Tampa was leading 2-0 so I was like 'OK, we'll just win the next one.' Then the Rangers came back and won 3-2. That was good for us.''

Florida led 1-0 going into a second period in which Montreal got four power play chances. The Canadiens tied it midway through on Alex Galchenyuk's 22nd of the season.

The Panthers got a power play of their own late in the period and Bjugstad scored his second in as many nights as he hammered a feed from Teddy Purcell with just 12.2 seconds remaining.

Florida opened things up a bit midway through the third when Greg McKegg -- back in the lineup for the first time in a week -- scored the second goal of his career to make it 3-1.

The Panthers all but ended things when Jiri Hudler scored with 1:29 left.

Luongo, a Montreal native, picked up the victory by making 32 saves.

"It's nice, but you don't want to get too happy," Luongo said. "We know the serious work lies ahead of us. We're happy to accomplish what we did, but we know the real season starts next week."

-- Defenseman Brian Campbell played in his 1,000th NHL game all while setting the franchise record for consecutive games played at 374.

Campbell received the 'Spacey In Space' sweatshirt for the first time Tuesday.

"We worked hard, planted some good seeds last year and now we have to tune up and get ready for the playoffs,'' Campbell said. "We have a good bunch in here.''

Campbell hasn't missed a game since joining the Panthers in 2011 and surpassed Olli Jokinen's team record of playing in 373 consecutive games.

"I'm happy for him," said Jokinen, who still lives in Broward and is part of the new South Florida Hockey Academy at Glacier Ice in Lighthouse Point.

"What makes that streak even more impressive is he plays a lot of heavy minutes every night. He probably has played through some injuries during the streak and that shows how well he takes care of his body off the ice."

-- Defenseman Erik Gudbranson flew with the team from Toronto to Montreal on Monday night yet was back in the air headed to South Florida on Tuesday.

Gudbranson took what looked like a shot to his head from Toronto's Colin Greening during the third period Monday but remained in the game.

Later, Gudbranson and Greening got tangled up again, this time Gudbranson went hard into the boards and may have aggravated the foot injury he had just returned from.

Although Gallant wouldn't say why Gudbranson was sent back, it's not believed to be too serious of a concern.

-- John Scott, the MVP of this past All-Star game, was recalled from the minors for what may just be Tuesday's game. Scott was in the starting lineup and was loudly cheered every time he touched the puck.

The largest roar for Scott came in the second period when he drove Greg McKegg into the corner. An anticipated final bout with Shawn Thornton never materialized.

-- Jaromir Jagr recorded assists on Florida's first two goals giving him 64 points this season.

-- McKegg scored his first goal of his NHL career last Tuesday against Toronto and then was a healthy scratch for Florida's next three games as Derek MacKenzie got back in the lineup.

McKegg got his second on Tuesday giving him goals in consecutive games.

"It's obviously pretty special to be a part of this,'' McKegg said. "We have a lot of good players and everyone is contributing. I'm having a lot of fun.''

-- The Panthers went 4-0 and swept the season series from the Canadiens for the first time since their 2011-12 playoff season.

With the win, Florida now owns a 41-40-6 edge in the all-time series against the storied Canadiens.

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