It's not every day that an empty-net goal turns out to be the game-winner.
Perhaps that's why Florida and Montreal saved a few late-game fireworks for New Year's Eve.
In the end, it was the Panthers who were celebrating after erasing a one-goal deficit then holding on for a 3-2 win over the Habs in a physical game Saturday at BankAtlantic Center.
Behind two goals from Tomas Fleischmann -- including an empty-netter with 41 seconds left in regulation – Florida (20-12-7, 45 points) weathered an even later Erik Cole strike to take a four-point lead place in the Southeast Division into 2012.
"We were a little shaky at the start, maybe a little tired, but watch the third period – we were hitting, we were on pucks, got to the net, were relentless on the forecheck – that's why we won the game," said Shawn Matthias, who broke a 1-1 tie early in the third. "We outbattled them."
One night after he was chased by the New York Rangers when he conceded three goals on 14 shots, Scott Clemmensen redeemed himself when starter Jose Theodore left with a lower-body injury 4:16 into the second period. Clemmensen stopped 17 of 18 shots, including 11 during a third period.
"Any time that you're pulled from a game, you want to get right back at it, right back on the horse," he said. "It was unexpected circumstances tonight but it gave me that opportunity to get back in there which was something that was good for me."
Said coach Kevin Dineen: "I love the way Clem came in there. He made the saves when we needed to make them. We made it way too interesting, gave up way too many scoring chances, but he did a good job for us."
Theodore had stopped nine of 10 shots before defenseman Dmitry Kulikov tumbled over him, causing the goaltender to twist his leg awkwardly. He skated off under his own power, but didn't return.
"He's been evaluated," Dineen said. "He's got a lower-body injury that's going to keep him out of the lineup, certainly, for the next couple games."
Montreal (14-18-7, 38 points) has lost seven of eight overall is eight points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Carey Price stopped 32 shots.
Mattias broke a 1-1 tie 3:08 into the third period. After Price stuffed Kris Versteeg on a breakaway, the Panthers kept the puck when Ed Jovanovski intercepted in the neutral zone and flicked it to Matthias, who went in alone, evading one Canadien and skating around another before firing high past Price.
Just 11 seconds after Fleischmann's empty-net goal sent Habs fans – making their annual New Year's journey to Florida – heading to the exits, Clemmensen gave the Canadiens a chance when he came away from the right post and was beaten by Cole's backhander from the lower right circle. The goal was the 200th of Cole's career and his 19th against the Panthers, the most the former Carolina Hurricane has had against any team except Washington.
Montreal controlled play after the faceoff, getting at least three clear shots on goal; Clemmensen and sprawling defenders managed to keep the puck out of the net until the horn sounded
"I think the desperation at the end of the game should've happened a little bit earlier," Habs coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "I think that's the kind of play we need to see a little more often. Our compete and our desperation wasn't there all night."
The Habs struck first through Travis Moen, who scored his ninth of the season on a give-and-go with Lars Eller at 5:37. Moen picked up the puck deep in his own zone, centered it to Eller and from there the two-man rush was on. Eller took it through the neutral zone then backhanded to his left, where Moen picked the puck up and fired it across Price from the left circle.
Florida got even on 3:46 into the second period with a power-play goal. Brian Campbell fed a streaking Stephen Weiss, who raced into Montreal's zone and fed Fleischmann, skating to his right. With Weiss continuing to the net and forming a screen with defenseman Hal Gill, Fleischmann had an opening to fire high past Price's right shoulder for his 14th of the season.
Material from team media and wire services was used in this report