Canadiens-Panthers Preview

The Montreal Canadiens know they’re almost certain to begin the playoffs against a team based in Florida, but they’d prefer not having to travel south to kick off their playoff run.

Getting two points against the Sunshine State team that won’t even sniff the postseason will get them closer to that goal.

Montreal looks to take another step toward earning home-ice advantage in the first round as it seeks a fifth straight victory Saturday night against the host Florida Panthers.

The Canadiens (42-26-7) are all but locked into a first-round matchup with Tampa Bay, which it will visit for a critical game Tuesday, but which club has home ice for that series is very much up in the air.

The Lightning have earned 14 of a possible 16 points in their last eight games but so has Montreal, which blew a two-goal third-period lead Thursday at Detroit before pulling out a 5-4 victory.

Tampa Bay also won, keeping the Canadiens’ lead at two points – although the Lightning have a pair of games in hand.

"It doesn’t matter if you win 1-0 or 10-9 at this point. It all adds up the same," goaltender Carey Price said. "… Every point’s huge at this point in the season."

Continuing to pile up points may not be as easy without top-line center Tomas Plekanec, who didn’t travel to Florida due to personal reasons. Plekanec scored twice against the Red Wings and had six points in his previous seven games.

Lars Eller figures to take Plekanec’s place on the top line between Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk.

Though the Panthers (27-39-8) are toiling away in 15th place in the Eastern Conference, they’ve outscored the Canadiens 7-4 in winning two of three meetings this season.

Price, however, was only in net for a 2-1 home victory on Jan. 6, and Montreal has had few problems against Florida when he’s been starting. The Olympic gold medalist is 4-1-1 with a 0.98 goals-against average and two shutouts in his last six starts in the series.

A similarly stingy performance wouldn’t be much of a surprise considering how inept the Panthers have looked offensively of late. Florida has been outscored 17-5 while dropping four of its past five games, going 0 for 11 with the man advantage while allowing opponents to score four times in 10 power-play chances.

The Panthers couldn’t get any of their 35 shots past Anton Khudobin in a 3-0 loss to Carolina on Thursday, but it was the health of their own goaltender that was a bigger concern. Roberto Luongo didn’t come out for the second period after Hurricanes forward Radek Dvorak crashed into him midway through the first.

Dan Ellis stopped 18 of 20 shots the rest of the way and figures to get the call Saturday. He’s 0-3-0 with a 5.08 GAA in three post-Olympic starts.

"They told me I was going in there," Ellis said Thursday. "It’s never a fun situation because you know your partner … something might not be good with him. That’s the job, and you have to be ready when they call you."

With Plekanec out Saturday and possibly Tuesday, the Canadiens would love to see Max Pacioretty’s hot streak continue. The winger scored for the third time in four games Thursday to match his career high with 33 goals as Montreal improved to 21-1-1 when he finds the back of the net.

Oddly, that’s something Pacioretty hasn’t done versus Florida. He’s never scored on 50 shots in 16 career games against the Panthers, though he does have eight assists.