Here are five things you should know about the Canadiens-Florida Panthers game at BB&T Centre on Friday (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio).
The matchup: This is the first of four meetings between these Atlantic Division rivals. The Canadiens have gone 8-4 in December and are 2-1 on their six-game holiday road trip that concludes with games Saturday in Tampa Bay and Monday in Dallas. Montreal holds down the second wild-card spot in the Atlantic Division with 43 points on a 19-13-5 record and has won its last two games after rallying to beat Vegas 4-3 in overtime on Dec. 22. Florida, which is coming off a 6-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks, is seven points behind the Canadiens, but the Panthers have played two fewer games.
Niemi in nets for Habs: With news Friday that Carey Price is sidelined with a lower-body injury and will miss the final three games of the road trip, Antti Niemi will start in goal. Niemi has lost his last three starts and hasn’t won a game since Nov. 10, but the Canadiens need him to contribute. Look for the Panthers to start veteran Roberto Luongo. The Montreal native missed time this season with a knee injury, but he has started four of the past five games and won three of them.
Danault breaks through: Phillip Danault took a load off his shoulders when he scored three goals to lead the Canadiens to a 4-3 OT win over Vegas in their final game before the Christmas break. Danault, who ranks sixth in team scoring with five goals and 22 points, had been struck on two goals since Nov. 27. He was under fire in the twittersphere for his lack of goal-scoring as his critics overlooked the fact he was setting up linemates Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, was winning faceoffs on a consistent basis and was playing a 200-foot game, which makes the coaches happy.
Injury update: Besides Price’s injury, Gallagher — the Canadiens’ leading goal-scorer with 15 — was on the team charter Thursday, but his status for this game is uncertain after he missed practice with flu symptoms. Andrew Shaw also missed practice for personal reasons, but is expected to be in the lineup. David Schlemko remained in Montreal after being placed on the injured reserve list with an upper-body injury. Schlemko has missed 55 of 119 games since he signed with the Canadiens prior to last season. Vincent Trocheck is missing from the Panthers’ lineup after surgery to repair a broken ankle, while Nick Bjugstad is day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
The other guys: The Panthers rank ninth in the NHL in offence with 3.26 goals a game. Jonathan Huberdeau leads the scoring parade with 42 points, including 33 assists, which ties him with Edmonton’s Connor McDavid for seventh in the NHL. The Panthers’ top goal-scorers are Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman with 17 each. Aleksander Barkov has 15 goals and 36 points, while Frank Vatrano has 10 goals. The Achilles heel for the Panthers has been a porous defence that has allowed 3.49 goals a game to rank 27th.