Head coach Martin St. Louis has the Canadiens believing they can hang with the best teams in the NHL, and they proved it Tuesday in Florida.
For about five minutes.
The Canadiens staged one of their heart-stopping comebacks in the second period as they scored three goals in a 1:43 span to pull even with the Florida Panthers at 4-4, but reality set in as the Atlantic Division leaders cruised to a 7-4 victory at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise.
The result was predictable. The Panthers are the highest-scoring team in the NHL, they are second in the overall standings and they are Stanley Cup contenders.
And while the Canadiens have achieved a level of respectability since St. Louis replaced Dominique Ducharme, they are a team that continues to be plagued by injuries and finds itself short-staffed after saying goodbye to four regulars at the trade deadline.
“I would still say that there is a big difference between our game right now and our game a month ago,” said defenceman Joel Edmundson. “We can see it, no matter the number of goals we may have allowed, no matter the gap — we don’t give up. No one is going to give up in this locker room.”
“It’s a great opportunity to grow when you have to face good teams like the Panthers,” explained St. Louis. “We managed to put ourselves in a good position, starting the third period with a score of 4-4. Then we have to find the answers. We’ll find them and move on to Carolina.”
The Canadiens started their current road trip with a 3-2 shootout loss to fellow have-not New Jersey, and Tuesday marked the start of a run through some of the top teams in the NHL. They will face the Metropolitan Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes Thursday and wrap up the week against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.
“It’s a challenge to play against the best teams in the league like the Panthers,” said St. Louis. “You have to make sure to respect them, but also not to be afraid of them, and finally to be ready. We were ready to play this game. We didn’t execute our plays as we wanted, it’s a bit our fault, but you also have to know how to recognize the talent of the other team. So that’s a bit of all of that. Coaches, we’re going to watch the game again on video, we’re going to go from there.”
Here’s another dose of reality: Florida outshot Montreal 46-24, but the game was more one-sided than that. Florida had 16 shots off-target while another 21 were blocked. Seven of those blocks were by Corey Schueneman, who is one of the defencemen who will be battling for a job in September.
The Panthers took advantage of 19 turnovers, four of which led to goals.
Newcomer Justin Barron saw action in every situation and picked up his first point when he assisted on a goal by Edmundson, who had promised to dedicate his next goal to his father, who died this year.
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and to get that for him, I was thinking about it the rest of the game,” said Edmundson. “It was definitely a good feeling.”
The injury list may have grown longer Tuesday. Jake Evans fell heavily into the boards after he was thwarted on a shorthanded rush in the third period. The official word is that Evans is day-to-day with an upper-body injury, but he appeared to be in considerable pain as he was helped from the ice. It’s unlikely he will be available for Thursday’s game against Carolina.