MONTREAL -- Kevin Dineen sure likes to play coy, but his delivery could use a little work.
On Tuesday morning, he did a very poor job trying to hide the fact that Scott Clemmensen, owner of a perfect lifetime record against the Montreal Canadiens, would be his starting goalie. After a come-from-behind 3-2 shootout win, Dineen did an even worse job feigning ignorance as to the significance of that victory for his Florida Panthers.
"Washington lost?" Dineen asked, knowing full well the Capitals had suffered a devastating 5-1 loss at home earlier Tuesday to the Buffalo Sabres, thereby extending the Panthers' Southeast Division lead to a commanding five points.
The coach's sly grin immediately after his inquiry gave it away.
"Let's not kid ourselves; we're all doing that right now on both sides of the ledger," Dineen said of the scoreboard-watching going on. "Everyone's looking around to see what's happening around the League. That's a nice win for us and I give Buffalo credit; that's a team that was counted out three weeks ago."
Wojtek Wolski scored in regulation and was the lone scorer in the shootout for the Panthers before Clemmensen stopped Tomas Plekanec and forced Louis Leblanc to shoot wide to ice the win for the Panthers (36-24-15), who snapped a four-game winless slide to grab a stranglehold on the division with a game in hand on the Capitals.
But it wasn't easy as -- Panthers entered the third period down 2-1 and were staring at the possibility of leaving Montreal with nothing.
"Playing teams that are beneath us in the standings, especially those that are out of the playoffs, we feel we should get two points no matter what," said Clemmensen, who made 27 saves to improve to a perfect 6-0-0 in seven career appearances against Montreal. "So even though we played a solid game we weren't going to be satisfied without the two points."
Erik Cole set a career high with his 31st goal and Leblanc also scored for the Canadiens (29-34-14), who are 1-2-3 in their last six games.
"You knew this was a big game for them and they needed the points," said Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, who logged a team-high 28:05 of ice time. "I thought we put ourselves in a good position to win the hockey game in the third period."
But it wasn't good enough, as has often been the case for a Canadiens team that has the fourth-lowest winning percentage in the League when leading after two periods (.710).
The Panthers won for the second time in their last three road games, which bodes well considering this was the start of a four-game road swing for the Panthers that will take them to Minnesota, Columbus and Detroit.
Florida will finish the season with two of its final three at home. The one road game will be in Washington on April 5.
"Knowing that Washington lost and with us getting the two points, every game that goes by the complexion changes," Clemmensen said. "We're in the driver's seat and we want to tighten our grip a little bit. In a perfect world we can go into Washington next week and have a big cushion to take that pressure off ourselves, but we have some work to do ahead of time on the road against teams that are out of the playoffs."
Carey Price stopped 34 shots for the Canadiens, but was visibly upset as he left the dressing room after being tagged with yet another loss despite a solid performance.
"Carey Price was their best player," Clemmensen said, "as he is most nights."
Florida's Stephen Weiss saw his season-high six-game points streak come to an end, falling one game short of matching a career high.
The Canadiens remained last in the Eastern Conference but moved ahead of the Edmonton Oilers by one point into 28th overall with one less game to play.
The victory gave the Panthers a season-sweep of the Canadiens and improved their record to 14-3-3 against Canadian opponents this season.
"Getting four games against Montreal is a real tough thing to do," Dineen said.
With the Canadiens up 2-1 in the third period, the Panthers tied it when Samuelsson's long shot from the blue line beat Price cleanly high to the glove side at 12:48 for his 12th of the season to send Florida to a shootout in a third straight game in spite of being outshot by the Canadiens 5-0 in the overtime period.
Wolski got the game's first goal at 7:10 of the first when he skated nearly the length of the ice down the right wing and simply entered the Canadiens before firing a wrist shot that beat Price high on the glove side. It was Wolski's fourth goal in 16 games since coming to the Panthers in a trade with the Rangers on Feb. 25, but Dineen suggested it's what he did in the shootout that predicated that transaction. Wolski improved to 24-for-57 (42.1 percent) in his career in the tiebreaker.
"That's a big game by Wolski to get the goal to start it off and then to get the shootout goal," Dineen said. "That's part of the reason he's here."
Cole tied it at 13:31 with Weiss in the penalty box, converting a rebound of a Max Pacioretty shot to better his previous career-best of 30 goals, set with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06.
The Panthers completely dominated the second period, outshooting Montreal 13-4, but it was the Canadiens who came out ahead when a botched Florida line change gave them a 3-on-0 break late in the period. Frederic St-Denis corralled a turnover and sent Leblanc in alone on Clemmensen with Pacioretty and David Desharnais trailing him, except Leblanc didn't require the help and scored on a nifty backhand deke for his fifth of the season at 18:57.
"I don't think that Leblanc knew it was a 3-on-0," Clemmensen said. "I played it like a 3-on-0 trying to hold the middle thinking he might put a drop pass back, but he ended up pulling it all the way across. I wish I'd played it differently knowing now that he probably didn't know that."
But ultimately it didn't matter because, as Clemmensen said, the Panthers find themselves in the driver's seat heading straight towards the franchise's first playoff berth since 2000.