After five days off, the Florida Panthers return to the ice on Thursday night to play the visiting Montreal Canadiens — and try to break a three-game losing streak.
The Panthers haven’t played since falling to the New York Islanders on Friday in Elmont, N.Y. That left the Panthers — who were the NHL’s best regular-season team last season — at 15-16-4 on the season.
“It hasn’t been the first half of the season we wanted,” Panthers forward Sam Bennett said. “It’s time to reset and refocus and come back hungry.”
The Panthers are hoping to get three key players back from injury on Thursday: captain/center Aleksander Barkov and defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Radko Gudas.
Barkov sat out the past three games due to a knee injury. After scoring a career-high 39 goals in 67 games last season, Barkov has just six this campaign. He has also missed 10 of Florida’s 35 games.
Ekblad, who posted a career-high 57 points in 61 games last season, has just 14 points in 24 games this campaign. He exited the Islanders game in the first period because of an upper-body injury.
Gudas has missed 10 games this season after being absent for only five and leading the Panthers with 355 hits last season. The next-closest Panthers player had 179 hits. He hasn’t played since Dec. 3 due to a concussion.
The Panthers are also missing Anthony Duclair. He was third on the team last season with 31 goals but has yet to play in this campaign following foot surgery.
“I’ve never been on a team with this much bad luck with injuries,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said. “But that’s no excuse.”
The Panthers are leaning on Matthew Tkachuk, who has played 32 games and leads the team in assists (25) and points (40). Tkachuk is the fastest Florida player ever to reach 40 points, beating out Hall of Famer Pavel Bure, who needed 33 games.
Montreal, meanwhile, is coming off a 4-1 road loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night.
It was the Canadiens’ third straight loss (0-2-1). Since Nov. 29, Montreal is just 4-8-2.
Thursday will mark the fifth contest in Montreal’s current seven-game road trip. It’s the longest trip the Canadiens will play all season, and, so far they are 1-2-1.
The Canadiens also are just 2-for-37 on the power play over their past 11 games.
“We’re losing that fight right now on special teams,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said. “It’s something we’re trying to get better at and address. It’s hurting our success right now.”
Still, St. Louis, who is in his first full season as Montreal’s coach, is looking at more than his team’s record.
“You can’t be so results driven,” said St. Louis, who made the Hall of Fame as a player. “I have to assess how my team is actually playing.”
The Canadiens, who finished last season with the worst record in the NHL, are again in last place in the Atlantic Division.
Montreal is using a goalie rotation of 26-year-old Sam Montembeault, who played his first two NHL seasons with the Panthers, and Jake Allen, 32. Montembeault (6-3-2, 2.89 goals-against average) has had more success this season than Allen (9-14-1, 3.29). Allen gave up four goals on 38 shots in the loss to Tampa Bay on Wednesday.
Defenseman Mike Matheson, another former Panthers player, is out due to a lower-body injury. Montreal is also without defenseman David Savard because of an upper-body injury.
Defenseman Kaiden Guhle scored Montreal’s lone goal on Wednesday, ending Andrei Vasilevskiy’s shutout bid with 2:39 to go. It was the rookie’s second NHL tally.
“It was nice to score and to get one on the board is good going into (Thursday),” Guhle said, according to NHL.com. “Maybe we’ll have a little bit of a better feeling going into (Thursday). No time to think about this one.”
–Field Level Media