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Montreal Canadiens back in the NHL playoffs, clinch division with win over Florida Panthers

By Walter Villa, The Sports Xchange
Montreal Canadiens Paul Byron (L) is congratulated by Artturi Lehkonen of Finland after scoring a goal against the St. Louis Blues in the first period at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis on December 6, 2016. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/55f68d6c08fde89189c8cd10e47258af/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Montreal Canadiens Paul Byron (L) is congratulated by Artturi Lehkonen of Finland after scoring a goal against the St. Louis Blues in the first period at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis on December 6, 2016. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The 24-time Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens, with a past that qualifies them as hockey royalty, didn't even make the playoffs last year.

Now they are back after clinching the Atlantic Division title with a 4-1 victory over the Florida Panthers on Monday night at the BB&T Center.

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Canadiens coach Claude Julien, who has produced a 15-5-1 record since taking over for the fired Michel Therrien, was low-key about the accomplishment.

"We talked about it in the room," Julien said. "We clinched first place, and now it's about continuing to improve as a team and making sure we head into the playoffs the right way."

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The Canadiens rested star goalie Carey Price and were without injured defenseman Shea Weber but still had enough to defeat the Panthers.

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Credit Artturi Lehkonen, a 21-year-old rookie from Finland who burned Florida with two goals and one assist.

Lehkonen, who had a secondary assist on a goal by Andrew Shaw, scored with 1:27 expired in the third period, snapping a 1-1 tie. He scored again on a rebound with 3:11 left in the third.

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That gave him 16 goals this season, including three that are considered game-winners.

Alexander Radulov added an empty-net goal with 1:26 left, and rookie goalie Charlie Lindgren picked up the win with 31 saves.

A bright spot for Florida was the play of Jonathan Marchessault, who became the seventh player in Panthers history to reach 30 goals. With his second-period goal, he became the first Panther in seven years to reach 30.

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Montreal (46-24-9) won its fifth straight game and has compiled 101 points with three games remaining in the regular season.

The Panthers (33-35-11), who were eliminated from playoff contention last week in a loss at Montreal, have gone 4-12-1 in their past 17 games.

Already thinking of next season, the Panthers used defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, 23, who made his NHL debut and came up with a giant hit, crushing Brandon Davidson into the boards with a clean shot.

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"I felt really comfortable," Weegar said. "But my first game we didn't get the win."

Lindgren, a Minnesota native playing just his second NHL game and his first this season, won a battle between third-string goalies.

The 23-year-old undrafted rookie beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-2 in his NHL debut on April 7, 2016, and posted his second victory four days shy of the one-year anniversary of his milestone.

"It was pure excitement," Lindgren said of his win over Florida. "My family was in the building. This was one of the best nights of my life."

Reto Berra, Florida's 30-year-old third-string goalie, took the loss, allowing three goals and making 27 saves.

Montreal opened the scoring. With 13:12 expired in the first period, Shaw scored on a one-timer from the slot, taking a nice pass from Alex Galchenyuk.

Florida tied the score 1-1 with 8:57 expired in the second period. Marchessault took a pass from Michael Sgarbossa and held onto the puck until he got a clear shot, sliding it under Lindgren's left pad.

"I had an open net there," Marchessault said. "I'm happy with how things are going for me personally, but it's disappointing (not making the playoffs)."

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The Panthers had a chance to go ahead later in the period after the Canadiens committed two penalties in close succession -- Shaw for delay of game after firing the puck over the glass and Phillip Danault for hooking Jaromir Jagr.

Florida, though, could not convert, despite having a two-man advantage for 68 seconds. Montreal cleared the puck twice, blocked two shots and got a bit lucky when Jonathan Huberdeau missed the net from point-blank range.

Lehkonen put Montreal ahead 2-1 when he beat Berra with a wicked shot high to the glove side.

Florida nearly scored a short-handed goal with 9:57 left in the third period. Panthers center Vincent Trocheck, who has 22 goals but hasn't scored since Feb. 28, hit the right post, spoiling a three-on-one rush.

And that was it for Florida. Lehkonen's second goal sealed the deal, and you can bet the Canadiens -- destined to play the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs -- are already looking ahead to that matchup.

"We're happy," Julien said. "This gives us home ice for a good portion of the playoffs."

NOTES: Montreal won its third division title in the past five years. ... Canadiens D Shea Weber (lower body) sat out for the first time this season and may miss at least one more game. D Nikita Nesterov, who had been out since Feb. 27 due to a lower-body injury, returned to the lineup, replacing Weber. ... Montreal G Carey Price, who is tied for fourth in the NHL with a .924 save percentage, was rested. He is 38-18-4 this season with a 2.20 goals-against average. ... Florida was without its best defenseman, Aaron Ekblad (neck); its best forward, Aleksander Barkov (upper body); its best goalie, Roberto Luongo (lower body); and its backup goalie, James Reimer (concussion). Of the four, only Reimer is likely to return this season. ... Ex-Panthers G Al Montoya, who backs up Price in Montreal, has missed the past four games due to a lower-body injury. ... Montreal's four-game trip ends on Wednesday with a game at the Buffalo Sabres. ... Florida plays host to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday.

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