Less than 24 hours after recapturing the Atlantic Division lead with an emotional win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Montreal Canadiens (21-15-3) surrendered it with a 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers (21-12-4).
“We didn’t have the necessary energy to compete with them,” said Canadiens coach Michel Therrien. “It’s as simple as that.”
No team has been able to compete with the Atlantic-leading Panthers in December, who capped the month with their seventh win in a row — and 11th in 14 games.
It was Florida’s most successful month in a season since entering the NHL in 1993.
As for the 106-year-old Canadiens, December of 2015 was a misery.
The loss to Florida was Montreal’s 11th of the month. It came in front of thousands of their own fans, who helped fill a capacity crowd at BB&T Arena.
The Canadiens fans in attendance weren’t completely deprived of entertainment Tuesday.
Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov, who opened and closed the scoring against Montreal, put on a show over 19 minutes and 37 seconds of ice-time. He had four shots on net — all of them threatening — and finished plus-2.
The 20-year-old also set up 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr with the game-winning goal in the second period. It was a beautiful play all around and a perfect example of how well things clicked for the Panthers Tuesday night.
“I thought the boys played a strong game, one of the best of the year,” said Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo, who made 29 saves. “As far as structure, we really didn’t have any breakdowns at all.”
The Canadiens, who allowed 29 shots against, had several.
Goaltender Ben Scrivens, who was acquired by Montreal in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers Monday, faced several quality scoring chances but kept the Canadiens within striking distance up until Barkov scored Florida’s third goal with 11:07 left in the third period.
“I didn’t just think he was good, I thought he was really good,” said Therrien. “He was excellent.”
Excellence has been unattainable for the rest of the Canadiens since starting the season 9-0-0. They had, at one point, held an 11-point lead over the next-best team in their division. They now sit one point back of the Panthers.
By the time Montreal plays their next game, they could find themselves in third place in the Atlantic (Detroit has a chance to overtake them with a win over Pittsburgh Thursday night). And their next game is the 2016 Bridgestone Winter Classic against the Boston Bruins, who are just one point back after thumping the Ottawa Senators with a 7-3 win Tuesday.
The Canadiens will practise in Florida Wednesday before arriving in Boston later in the evening.
Forward Brendan Gallagher, who missed Montreal’s last 17 games after suffering fractures to two fingers of his left hand, is expected to accompany the team and could make his return on Friday. He has nine goals and 19 points in 22 games this season.
The Canadiens are in desperate need of Gallagher’s offence, having scored an average of 1.94 goals a game in his absence.