Montreal Canadiens clinch, Florida Panthers eliminated from 2017 NHL playoff contention

By Heather Engel, The Sports Xchange  |  March 31, 2017 at 1:15 AM
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MONTREAL -- Between injury and offensive woes, Montreal Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher is not enjoying the easiest of seasons.

But as the season winds down, the struggles appear to be in the past.

Gallagher enjoyed a career night, with a goal and three assists, to send the Canadiens to a 6-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday and a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"It's been a little bit of a different year for me, for sure, but I'm feeling really good about my game right now," Gallagher said. "Certainly playing with Paulie (Paul Byron) and Pleky (Tomas Plekanec), we're building something here. We obviously have the task of going up against top players on the other team; I think that brings the best out of our game as well and helps us chip in on the other side of the ice as well."

The line accounted for eight points on the night as Byron scored twice and Plekanec picked up a goal and an assist. Phillip Danault and Max Pacioretty also scored for Montreal (44-24-9).

Reilly Smith and Michael Matheson scored for Florida (33-33-11), which was eliminated from playoff contention.

"I think it's all about pride," Matheson said of the mindset heading into the final games of the season. "I know for myself, last year when I was in the minors, I would have given anything to have a game in the NHL. Knowing that, you've got to come ready to play, no matter what."

Montreal had its legs ready in this one, outshooting Florida 6-1 early.

The Canadiens tested Berra on several occasions and finally broke through at 7:24. Nathan Beaulieu skated in from the blue line before sending a pass intended for Gallagher that touched the winger's stick before rolling to Byron in the right circle.

Plekanec doubled Montreal's lead less than three minutes later when he took a Gallagher feed in the slot and beat Berra.

"It just seems like the last few games, we're kind of feeling our way in," Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie said. "Obviously our pace isn't where it should be; it wasn't against Toronto and it wasn't again tonight against Montreal. That's all it takes is a bit of a slow start. When you give up a 2-0 lead like that, it allows teams to take a few more chances. And it just kind of snowballed on us tonight."

Byron notched his second goal of the night at 13:19, when Beaulieu sent a perfect pass his way in the slot.

"This time last year, you're preparing for the end of the year, just counting down the games," Byron said. "This year you're getting ready for the playoffs, making sure you get in. Lots of teams behind us, chasing us for first place, and you want to make sure you're playing your best hockey going into the playoffs."

Outshot 17-9 in the first period, the Panthers came to play in the second, topping the Canadiens 13-8 in shots.

After failing to connect on a lengthy 5-on-3, Florida finally broke through at 10:41 of the second period. Jussi Jokinen found Smith in the right circle, and the winger fired one that quickly went in and out to put the Panthers on the board.

Pacioretty restored Montreal's three-goal lead at 3:52 of the third period. With a 2-on-1 inside the Florida zone, Alexander Radulov waited patiently before dishing off to the Canadiens' captain, who fired home his 35th of the season.

Matheson, a Montreal native, brought the Panthers back to within a pair nearly five minutes later when Vincent Trocheck found him at the top of the left circle.

Gallagher made it 5-2 when he tipped in Brandon Davidson's point shot at 12:55. Danault added to the rout with a shot from his knees in the circle at 16:49.

Carey Price stopped 29 shots for Montreal. Reto Berra made 27 saves for the Panthers.

NOTES: Florida G James Reimer missed the game after sustaining an upper-body injury against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night. ... C Aleksander Barkov was a late scratch for the Panthers with an upper-body injury, while D Aaron Ekblad (upper-body) and C Michael Sgarbossa (healthy) were also scratched. ... Montreal D Jamie Benn was sidelined with an undisclosed injury suffered on Tuesday. ... Canadiens C Torrey Mitchell didn't dress for the first time this season, while C/W Brian Flynn, RW Michael McCarron and D Nikita Nesterov were also healthy scratches. ... Panthers D Jason Demers played in his 500th NHL game. ... C Tomas Plekanec appeared in his 917th NHL game with Montreal, tying Serge Savard for 10th place on the franchise's all-time list.

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