What a difference a year makes.
Nearly 12 months ago, the Panthers defeated the Montreal Canadiens by a score of 4-1 to clinch the Atlantic Division title.
The tables were turned on Thursday night as the Canadiens clinched a playoff spot while eliminating the Panthers from postseason contention.
The Panthers had been teetering on the edge of elimination for the past couple of weeks, but the 6-2 loss at the Bell Centre – the same arena they celebrated in last year – was the final dagger.
The same team that set a franchise record by sweeping a 5-game road trip in mid-February has lost 14 of it’s last 19 games since.
Aleksander Barkov out of the lineup with an upper-body injury put the Panthers at a disadvantage before the puck even dropped. Paul Byron scored twice and Brendan Gallagher recorded 3 primary assists for Montreal in the opening frame en route to an early 3-0 lead.
Denis Malgin started the game on the top line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr and went on to finish with a minus-5 rating in 11:45 of ice time.
It was Malgin’s first game since suffering a concussion on March 3rd against the Lightning, although he had been medically cleared just over a week ago.
In the second period, one in which the Panthers brought a slightly better effort, Reilly Smith notched his 4th goal in the last 6 games on a cross-ice feed from Jussi Jokinen sent through the five-hole of goaltender Carey Price.
Mike Matheson’s 6th marker of the season was the Panthers’ only other goal of the game when he wristed the puck top shelf on Price in the 3rd period.
It ended up being too little too late as it was sandwiched between a Max Pacioretty goal and two others from Brendan Gallagher and Phillip Danault in the final 7 minutes.
The two teams will meet for the fourth and final time this season on Monday in Sunrise, Florida.
Reto Berra started the game as James Reimer sat out with an upper-body injury following Wednesday night’s collision with Brian Boyle. He made 27 saves on 33 shots while being left out to dry on just about all of the goals against.
Roberto Luongo, who has missed nearly a month of action with a lower-body injury, was deemed not ready, so Adam Wilcox was recalled from the AHL to serve as Berra’s backup.
The Panthers, a 103-point team last season, can now reach a maximum of 87 points this year, and that’s only if they win the remaining 5 games.
With the playoffs now mathematically out of reach, the Panthers could soon recall a handful of young players from their AHL affiliate, and head coach Tom Rowe said as much on Thursday afternoon.
Talking to Dale [Tallon] yesterday, we’re probably gonna bring a couple of young kids up from Springfield at some point in the next week when we get back off the road trip,” Rowe said on 560 WQAM. “Dale and I will sit down and go over a few possibilities and then start getting some guys in the lineup, see what they can do and get ready for next year.”
Some of the Panthers’ promising prospects include Jayce Hawryluk, Jared McCann, Dryden Hunt, Mackenzie Weegar, and Ian McCoshen, although it’s unclear who exactly they’ll want to see in action.
The NHL allows for each team to make 4 recalls from an affiliate after the trade deadline, and the Panthers already used 1 on Weegar a few weeks ago, so they have 3 left at their disposal.
The Panthers’ second-to-last road game of the season will be on Saturday at 1:00 pm against the division-rival Boston Bruins who are still fighting for a playoff spot. They’ll practice on Friday at 12:00 pm at Boston University’s Agganis Arena.