MONTREAL (AP) — Roberto Luongo got another shutout and helped the Florida Panthers inch closer to a playoff spot.
Luongo stopped 28 shots for his third shutout of the season and 76th of his career, leading the Panthers to a 2-0 victory over the injury-riddled Montreal Canadiens on Monday night.
Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov scored to help Florida pull three points behind idle new Jersey for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference with two games in hand on the Devils.
“As a team we have to remember to just stay in the moment,” said Luongo, whose club is 10-2-1 in its last 13 games. “Right now we’ll enjoy tonight but we have another big game (Tuesday night at Ottawa).
“Sometimes you get frustrated when you’re trying to chase teams and they seem to keep winning, so we just want to focus on our job and make sure we put our best game forward on a nightly basis and that stuff will take care of itself in the end.”
Luongo tied Ed Belfour and Tony Esposito for ninth place on the NHL’s career list for shutouts.
“It doesn’t mean much now,” he said. “Our goal is to make the playoffs and get some wins down the stretch. … so 100 per cent of my focus is on that.”
Antti Niemi finished with 38 saves — including two stops on Evgenii Dadonov on breakaways — for Montreal, which was shut out for the second straight game and 12th time this season — including three against the Panthers. The Canadiens were coming off a 4-0 loss at Toronto on Saturday.
Missing key players including defenseman Shea Weber and forwards Max Pacioretty, Phillip Danault and Andrew Shaw, nearly half the Canadiens’ lineup was call-ups from the AHL and they at times looked overwhelmed by the Panthers.
“To me it’s evident — we don’t have our team,” coach Claude Julien said. “Right now we’re not a good team. It’s not that the players aren’t good. We have a lot of injuries and even some of the players who aren’t (inexperienced) are getting more ice time than they’re used to.”
The opening 10 minutes saw two fights, one of which had Ekblad sparring with Nicolas Deslauriers. It may have fired up the big defenseman because he stole a puck from Michael McCarron, deked past defenseman Jeff Petry and beat Niemi with a move to the backhand for an unassisted goal with 1:29 left in the opening period.
Jacob De La Rose thought he had tied it for Montreal 17 seconds later, but a video review showed Alex Galchenyuk was offside by a toenail and it was waived off.
Barkov got his 26th of the season at 6:23 of the third when his shot from the left side went in off Montreal forward Logan Shaw.
“There’s a lot of confidence in this room,” said Ekblad. “Wins never come easy, but a lot of us are feeling very confident, making smart plays and doing the right things.”
Star goalie Carey Price returned to the Montreal lineup after a concussion suffered Feb. 20. He backed up Niemi, but may be ready to start when the Canadiens visit Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
Panthers: At Ottawa on Tuesday night as they continue a stretch of seven of eight on the road.
Canadiens: At Pittsburgh on Wednesday night.