SUNRISE, Fla. — It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …
Charles Dickens was writing about the French Revolution and not about the NHL playoffs when he wrote his famed historical novel in 1859.
But, to borrow again from Dickens, it certainly has been “A Tale of Two Cities” when you start to ponder the hockey fate of the Montreal Canadiens and the Florida Panthers, who will meet on Monday night at the BB&T Center.
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The game has ramifications for Montreal, which can clinch the Atlantic Division title and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Both teams fired their head coaches this season, but the moves produced very different results.
The Canadiens gave Michel Therrien the boot on Feb. 14. His replacement, Claude Julien, has produced a 14-5-1 record since taking over the team, leading Montreal (45-24-9) to the brink of the division title that was won by Florida last season.
The Canadiens also enter Monday’s game on a four-game winning streak.
Gerard Gallant, who led the Panthers to the Atlantic Division title last season, was fired incredibly quickly, getting the heave-ho on Nov. 27 after posting an 11-10-1 record.
General manager Tom Rowe, who fired Gallant, was installed as the interim coach, and that failed to change the team’s fortunes. The Panthers are 22-24-10 under Rowe and are out of playoff contention.
Florida enters the Monday game having lost 11 of its past 15. The Panthers were officially eliminated last Thursday after a 6-2 road loss to, coincidentally, the Canadiens.
“Looking back at that game, it’s one I’d like to forget,” Florida defenseman Michael Matheson said. “I’m sure my teammates feel the way. We didn’t come ready to play.”
In another coincidence, it was the same game in which the Canadiens clinched the playoffs. They need one victory in their final four games to win their second division title in three seasons.
“At least now we’re going back to the dance,” Julien said.
Once the playoff music starts playing, it is almost a lock that Montreal will be playing the New York Rangers, who are the first wild-card team. But that is hardly a break for Montreal since the Rangers (100 points) actually have one more point than the Canadiens.
In addition, the New York’s road record of 27-10-2 is better than Montreal’s home mark (24-11-5).
The reverse is also true. Montreal’s road record (21-13-4) is better than New York’s home mark (20-16-4).
The Canadiens have some health concerns they attempt to fine-tune their system for what they hope is a long playoff run.
Former Panthers goalie Al Montoya, who now backs up Carey Price in Montreal, has missed the past three games due to a lower-body injury, and his status for Monday has not yet been determined.
Montreal defenseman Nikita Nesterov is in a similar situation as Montoya. Nesterov has been out with a lower-body injury and his status is also undetermined.
Canadiens All-Star defenseman Shea Weber will miss at least the next two games due to a lower-body injury, the team announced Monday.
Price, who has a 2.20 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and a 37-18-4 record this season, is the likely starter on Monday.
Prior to the aforementioned 6-2 Montreal win over Florida, the Panthers and Canadiens have split their other two matchups this season. Both went to overtime.
The Panthers, though, will likely be short-handed on Monday.
Florida is without its best defenseman (Aaron Ekblad, neck), its top forward (Aleksander Barkov, upper body), its No. 1 goalie (Roberto Luongo, lower body) and its backup goalie (James Reimer, head injury). It is questionable whether any of the four will return against Montreal.
Reto Berra, Florida’s 30-year-old third-string goalie, is likely to start in place of Luongo and Reimer.