The Florida Panthers have been one of the NHL's biggest surprises through most of the season's first three months, but little has gone their way in recent games.
As they close out 2011, the Southeast Division-leading Panthers try to avoid a fifth loss in six games Saturday night against the struggling Montreal Canadiens.
With 45 points, Florida (19-12-7) is well on its way toward exceeding last season's point total of 72 - worst in the Eastern Conference - but has only picked up three points in its last five games (1-3-1). The Panthers have combined for two goals in their last three regulation defeats, and are coming off a 4-1 loss Friday to the New York Rangers.
Florida fell behind just 35 seconds into Friday's first period and trailed 3-0 within the first 16 minutes.
"We weren't ready for the game and there's absolutely zero excuse for that,'' said Matt Bradley, who scored Florida's lone goal. "They're the top team in the Eastern Conference and we know they work hard. And to come out like that was embarrassing.''
The game's finish was just as ugly for the Panthers, as New York's Michael Del Zotto delivered a cross-check to Tomas Kopecky with 8 seconds remaining. Kopecky responded with a punch that knocked Del Zotto to the ice. The incident prompted a fight between Kopecky and Mike Rupp.
Scott Clemmensen got the start between the pipes Friday, but departed after allowing the third goal. Jose Theodore turned away 10 of 11 shots in relief and is expected to get the start Saturday.
Theodore, who played for Montreal from 1996-2006, is 2-2-1 with a 4.81 lifetime goals-against average against his original NHL team. He didn't play in Florida's first game of the season against the Canadiens, a 2-1 win Oct. 24 in Montreal.
Tomas Fleischmann scored in that contest to help the Panthers snap a three-game losing streak in the series. Fleischmann ranks second on the team with 13 goals, but only has one in his last 12 games.
The Canadiens (14-17-7) arrive in South Florida hoping to conclude a six-game road trip on a positive note. They've already lost four times on their trek, and have dropped six of seven overall.
Montreal held a one-goal lead entering the final 20 minutes at Tampa Bay on Thursday, but surrendered two third-period goals en route to a 4-3 loss. It was the third time in six games the Canadiens squandered a lead in a defeat.
"We had some opportunities that we didn't capitalize on ... It's a broken record this year that we've got a 3-1 lead and we end up losing the hockey game,'' forward Erik Cole said. "It continues to be a problem. We just need to sort it out.''
Cole recorded his team-leading 15th goal Thursday, and has seven in his last 10 games. He scored Montreal's lone goal against the Panthers in October, giving him five goals and four assists in his last seven games versus Florida.
Goaltender Carey Price did not get the start in the first meeting of the season with the Panthers, but is expected to get the nod on New Year's Eve. Price, 1-5-0 with a 3.72 GAA since Dec. 15, is 3-1-0 with a 1.99 GAA in four career starts at Florida.