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Luongo stops Canadiens on friendly home ice

Luongo stops Canadiens on friendly home ice

It might not have the tradition of the old Maple Leaf Gardens or the history of Madison Square Garden, but clearly there's something about BankAtlantic Center much of the NHL has begun to find discomforting.

Or something the Florida Panthers find appealing. Because there's been no place like home for the Panthers this month.

And Friday was no different. With Joe Nieuwendyk scoring two goals, Roberto Luongo stopping Alexei Kovalev's penalty shot with less than three minutes to play and the Panthers' special teams continuing to shine, Florida fought past the Montreal Canadiens, 2-1, for their seventh win in their past nine home games.

"We're trying to make it difficult for teams to come in here," said Nieuwendyk, who was playing in his 1,200th NHL game. "And we've been doing a much better job of that. We're battling now. We're playing with a lot more poise with the puck. We're putting the puck in the right areas and making it more difficult on the opposition.

"It's just a sign that our confidence is getting better."

Nieuwendyk's game-winner, on a blistering slap shot from the left face-off circle, came late in the second period, just two seconds after Montreal had killed off a penalty. It was set up by Olli Jokinen, who stopped the scrappy Canadiens from clearing the puck at the blue line and earned his team-leading 24th assist, extending his season-high scoring streak to nine games.

The goal stood up, however, only because Luongo did, stopping Kovalev's weak penalty shot at the right post to preserve the win.

"I just wanted to be as patient as possible and wait until the last second for me to make my play," said Luongo, who has stopped all nine penalty shots he has faced in his NHL career.

The penalty shot was set up when Florida defenseman Lukas Krajicek slipped near center ice, giving Kovalev a breakaway opportunity. Krajicek hustled back but was called for hooking.

The game was played in front of a sellout crowd of 19,250, the Panthers' first sellout since opening night - although it's hard to say how big a help the crowd was since the most vocal fans were cheering for the storied Canadiens.

But the Panthers weathered it on home ice, where their 12 home wins this season ties them for sixth-best in the NHL and is four times as many as they have won on the road. And that's bad news since Florida embarks on its longest road trip of the season today, an eight-day, five-city trip that begins Sunday in Buffalo, New York.

"When you look at our record in December at home 7-1-1, it's a real good indication that we've taken great strides since the beginning of the year," Panthers coach Jacques Martin said. "We've been gaining confidence."

And nowhere was the Panthers' new confidence more apparent than in the middle of the second period, when their rapidly improving penalty-killing unit burned a four-minute high sticking foul by Stephen Weiss without giving up a shot, something Martin called the turning point in the game.

"Our penalty killers have been doing a great job," said Gary Roberts, who assisted on both Panthers goals. "It's fun to watch them from the bench and see the effort they put in."

Montreal scored its only goal just before the first intermission, when Niklas Sundstrom beat a diving Luongo for his sixth goal of the season.

In other NHL action: Ottawa 4, NY Islanders 3; Boston 2, Tampa Bay 1; Buffalo 4, Atlanta 1; Columbus 3, Chicago 2; Edmonton 4, Nashville 2; San Jose 5, Colorado 2.