Canadiens expect road support at Florida

NHL Hockey
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When the Florida Panthers host the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday night, there should be a relatively large crowd at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.

The Panthers, despite being a playoff-caliber team, have one of the worst attendance records in the NHL, ranking 29th out of 31 clubs with an average of just 13,001 fans per game.

But the Panthers typically draw much better against teams based in the Northeast, and that certainly includes the Canadiens, especially with many Montreal fans vacationing in South Florida this time of year.

“People from all over Canada are big Habs fans,” Canadiens rookie Nick Suzuki said recently. “It’s awesome to have their support on the road.”

Both the Canadiens and Panthers enter Sunday’s game on a back-to-back. The Canadiens lost 5-4 to the host Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night. The host Panthers defeated the Detroit Red Wings 5-4 on Saturday night.

Montreal blew a 2-0 lead to Tampa Bay, allowing four straight goals between the first and second periods. Canadiens goalie Carey Price, who made 25 saves, was unable to stop Tampa Bay’s high-powered offense.

Florida had the reverse of that, as the Panthers rallied from a 3-1 deficit, scoring four straight goals.

This will be the first time Florida and Montreal have faced each other this season. Last season, Montreal won three out of four, and all of the games were decided in regulation.

The last time they played, Montreal routed Florida 6-1 on March 26. Center Tomas Tatar scored twice for Montreal in that game.

“They are a good team — they play with a lot of pace,” Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman said of the Canadiens. “It’s going to be a fast game. They are going to come in hungry — it’s a division game. It will be a good test.”

On Sunday, the Panthers may be without two of their top four defensemen due to injuries: Aaron Ekblad (shoulder) and MacKenzie Weegar (lower body), who both sat out the Detroit game. It was just the second game Ekblad has missed in the past three years.

Riley Stillman, just recalled from the American Hockey League, stepped in on defense and played well, according to coach Joel Quenneville.

“Stillman did a nice job — he and Stralman were a good pair,” said Quenneville, who added that Weegar was unlikely to return on Sunday. (Quenneville did not comment on Ekblad.)

While Florida is banged up on defense, Montreal’s main injuries are to three forwards who combined to score 46 goals last season: Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron and Joel Armia.

However, second-line center Jesperi Kotkaniemi — who hadn’t played since Dec. 5 — returned from injury on Saturday and scored his fourth goal of the season.

As for the goalies, Montreal backup Keith Kinkaid (1-1-3, 4.24 goals-against average, .875 save percentage) may get the start after Price played on Saturday. Kinkaid, the 30-year-old former New Jersey Devil who is new to the Canadiens this season, hasn’t played since Nov. 30 and hasn’t won a game since Oct. 31.

The Panthers, who used backup Chris Driedger on Saturday, are expected to go with starter Sergei Bobrovsky (13-10-4, 3.20 GAA, .899 save percentage) on Sunday.

–Field Level Media

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