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As the Florida Panthers arrived at the Bell Centre for their final visit of the season, it might have been a difficult choice of what outcome to hope for–optimizing the Habs’ draft pick or the Panthers’–for Kent Hughes, or many fans, for that matter. Martin St. Louis, on the other hand, was working for another win, draft or no draft.

Alas, this time the odds were stacked too starkly against the Canadiens, as the Panthers were dead-set on gaining ground in breaking out of their playoff-fight bubble, and dominated the home team, who could muster only three high-danger scoring chances in the first 58 minutes of the game. If anything, the final 5-2 score flattered the bleu, blanc, et rouge as the Panthers swept the season series.

First shift, first shot, first goal

Sean Farrell, playing his second career NHL game, and the first home game, barely got on the ice before things started to happen. Farrell made a nice pass to Jake Evans to exit the Habs’ zone, and Evans then returned the favour in the neutral zone as the rookie forward caught up with it. Farrell, skating along the left-side boards, took a shot from near the hash marks, and the puck squeaked in through the space limited by Alex Lyon’s right pad, his arm, and the goal post.

At 1:23, it was the fastest first goal on home ice since Odie Cleghorn in 1918, 105 years earlier, and a pretty way to open his career at the Bell Centre.

Unfortunately for the Canadiens, that early lead did not last long. As the Panthers recovered from the initial shock, they turned up the heat on the Habs, controlling play and exerting sustained pressure.

Just after the four-minute mark, Anton Lundell took a pass from Eetu Luostarinen near the top of the right-hand circle and skated in toward the net. Unimpeded by any defenders, Lundell lifted a wrist shot into the top-left corner of the net, above the shoulder of Samuel Montembeault, to tie up the game at 4:04.

Michael Pezzetta was called for interference on Ryan Lomberg at 10:30, but this time the Habs’ penalty killers were up to the task, and the Panthers could not record even a single shot on net.

However, those last 18 minutes of the period were pretty relentless, with the Habs rarely getting even a proper look in the Florida zone.

The numbers reflected that, too, with a 13-6 Florida edge in shots and a stark 8-1 difference in high-danger chances.

It takes two to Tkachuk

Justin Barron got called at 3:12 for hooking Lomberg, the second Habs penalty, and the second drawn by Lomberg. This time the Panthers were far more organized, and it took only 47 seconds for them to draw blood. Sam Reinhart lobbed a pass across the front of the net, left to right, just off the ice, and Matthew Tkachuk one-timed it out of midair and into the back of the net before Montembeault had a chance to slide across to block it. So, 3:59 into the second, it was now a 2-1 Florida lead.

It got worse on Tkachuk’s next shift, as Joel Edmundson and Nick Suzuki collided just inside the Florida blue line, and the Panthers took advantage to break out and into the Habs’ zone. Tkachuk took a wrist shot from the right-side circle, through traffic, and it found its way into the bottom corner of the net on Montembeault’s stick side at 5:57.

The Habs were given a chance to get back into the game a few minutes later, as Brandon Montour was called for cross-checking Rafael Harvey-Pinard. However, Montreal’s power play performance was true to the team’s bottom-of-the-barrel league ranking in this category, and not only could they not execute a controlled entry into the Florida zone, they could not even get out of their own zone for a significant chunk of the penalty.

Mike Hoffman and Harvey-Pinard broke into the Florida zone just before the twelve-minute mark, and Hoffman made a pretty pass to Harvey-Pinard, who had a glorious chance in front of the net, but in the end, he was a little bit too close to Lyon to be able to score.

Johnathan Kovacevic gave away the puck in the Habs’ defensive zone, and that ended up with a dangerous opportunity for Ryan Lomberg, who nearly tipped the puck past Montembeault.

The Habs had a few more opportunities, including Pezzetta all alone in front at about 13:30 and a big scramble in front of Lyon two and half minutes later, but the Canadiens had trouble getting away shots that were actually dangerous.

And, yes, Tkachuk was working on his hat-trick opportunity, and had a chance just a minute from the end of the period, but could not finish.

The shots were a respectable 8-7, even if for Florida, but the high-danger chances eluded the Habs, with the Panthers holding a 9-1 edge in those.

Need three to win?

Mike Matheson had an opportunity early, but could not get a proper shot with his backhand, missing the net. But so did Tkachuk, about a minute later.

With about six and a half minutes in the record books, Chris Wideman’s clearing pass along the right-side boards failed to do what it was intended to do, to clear the zone. A pass, a funny bounce, and it was in front of the net, with Brandon Montour jumping on it. It was only a stonking save by Montembeault that saved the Florida score from reaching four.

But at 10:15, Lundell stripped the puck from Nick Suzuki just inside the Habs’ blue line, rather easily, and all of a sudden he was the only man inside the zone. With all the time in the world, he waited for Montembeault to make a move, and waited, and waited … until the Habs’ goalie finally committed to a butterfly save. And then Lundell skated just past Montembeault, and tucked the puck into the net, just behind Montembeault’s right pad, to make it a 4-1 game.

At 18:18, Radko Gudas, who had been knocking over Habs all game, was finally called for a penalty and assigned an interference call on Jesse Ylonen. Head coach St. Louis pulled Montembeault, giving the Habs a 6-4 advantage, and they made it work, with Harvey-Pinard tipping in a Hoffman shot in front of the net, to narrow the gap to 4-2.

Alas, Tkachuk completed his hat trick with an empty netter just a minute later, painting the final score at 5-2 and putting an end to the proceedings.

The final-period shots favoured Florida again, 9-7, and the high-danger chances 5-3–two of those three chances coming on the final 6-4 man advantage.

HW Habs Three Stars

First Star: Sean Farrell (1g, 0a, 1 shot, 13:32 TOI) benefited from having actually practised with the team before the game, and looked like he belonged on an NHL team this time. He spent most of his time with Suzuki, but worked well with other forwards, too, and even saw some power play time. A promising home start for the youngster, even if the stats didn’t exactly flatter him.

Second Star: Jordan Harris (0g, 0a, 1 shot, 21:00 TOI) has his stick working overtime to prevent the opposition from getting too close to the Habs’ net. His maturity after less than a season in the NHL is impressive, and he makes the future of the Habs’ defence corps look good.

Third Star: Mike Matheson (0g, 1a, 3 shots, 29:16) was a rock, playing nearly half the game, given the limited ice time Chris Wideman earned. Three high-danger scoring chances for the game, albeit with six against, but such is the life of an offensive defenceman.

Honourable Mention: Jonathan Drouin (0g, 0a, 2 shots, 15:31 TOI) worked well with Ylonen to keep the Panthers on their toes (paws?) in what was a rather lopsided game. Two high-danger chances for the Drouin line was as much or more than anyone else could generate on this night.