Panthers-Canadiens Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated March 26, 2012
With just seven games left, the Florida Panthers have a shot at their first division title. The Southeast Division leaders, though, could also end up out of the postseason altogether. Trying to avoid a season high-tying fourth consecutive loss, the visiting Panthers go for their first season sweep of the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night. With a three-point lead over second-place Washington in the division, Florida (36-24-15) is in a good position as it begins a four-game trip. The Panthers could lock up the division crown and a top-three seed during this stretch, but they've admittedly been tight as they've inched closer to the club's first postseason berth since 1999-2000. "It's the end of the season and we are a kind of a tight group right now," Tomas Fleischmann said after netting his career-high 24th goal in Sunday's 3-2 shootout loss to the New York Islanders. "Washington is coming after us for the playoffs. It's a fight right now.'' The Panthers also should be aware of surging Buffalo, which is tied with the Capitals for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 84 points. Those clubs meet Tuesday night, and the winner will trail Florida by one if the Panthers can't pick up a point against Montreal. Florida, though, should be more concerned about improving an offense that's found the back of the net just four times during its skid. The Panthers, who have been outscored 17-4 while posting a 1-3-1 record on the road this month, snapped a three-game skid in this series in their last trip to Montreal, a 2-1 victory Oct. 24. That was a season-high sixth consecutive loss for the Canadiens (29-34-13), who were never able to fully recover from the club's worst start in 70 years. Montreal was officially eliminated from playoff contention with Saturday's 4-1 loss at Philadelphia. The Canadiens made the postseason each of the last four years. "Obviously, you want to make the playoffs and have a chance to win the Cup, and the worst thing about it is we don't have a chance to win the Cup this year," forward Ryan White said. "So, it's frustrating for sure." Montreal is at the bottom of the East with 71 points, but coach Randy Cunneyworth expects a strong six-game finish from his club. "We still want to win hockey games," he told the Canadiens' official website following Monday's practice. "Regardless of where guys are, the end result remains that we still want the 'W.'" That could be tough if Panthers goaltender Jose Theodore is in net. The former Canadien is 4-1-2 with a 1.66 goals-against average in his last seven starts following Sunday's 35-save effort. If Theodore makes his first start against the Canadiens this season, it will be his second in Montreal as a visitor. He yielded a career-high eight goals in Colorado's 8-5 road loss to the Canadiens on Oct. 21, 2006. Scott Clemmensen turned aside 18 shots in Florida's 4-2 home win on Feb. 26 to improve to 5-0-0 with a 1.65 GAA in his career versus Montreal. Whichever netminder gets the call for Florida will want to be wary of Erik Cole, who is one goal shy of a career best with 31. Cole leads Montreal with two goals against Florida this season. Fleischmann's three goals are the most by a Panther against Montreal in 2011-12, while Stephen Weiss has a team-high four points. If Weiss adds to that total, he'll match a career high with a seven-game point streak.
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