SUNRISE, Fla. – A string of rosary beads swayed in Richard Zednik’s locker. Fans lined up to sign an oversized get-well card for the injured Florida Panthers forward, and teammates skated with him in mind.
It was a feel-good night for the Panthers. That is, until Alexei Kovalev spoiled the ending. Kovalev’s shot from the right circle 1:43 into overtime gave the Montreal Canadiens a 2-1 victory over Florida on Wednesday night, a power-play goal that left the Panthers steaming about the call they said decided the game.
“Make your own judgment,” Panthers coach Jacques Martin said.
With Jassen Cullimore – who helped Zednik off the ice after the forward’s neck was sliced by teammate Olli Jokinen’s skate in Buffalo on Sunday – in the penalty box for hooking, the Canadiens’ top-rated power play broke through.
“The refs are human and they make mistakes,” Cullimore said. “And that’s the way it goes.”
Steve Montador scored his fifth goal of the season in the first period for Florida. Christopher Higgins knotted the game with 7:26 left with his 18th of the season for Montreal.
Florida was flat at the start of overtime, and paid the price.
Higgins had two chances to win it from relatively close range in the first 17 seconds of the extra session, and Montreal eventually cashed in with the man advantage, with Kovalev getting assists from Saku Koivu and Bryan Smolinski.
“It was really important we got the win tonight,” said Montreal goaltender Carey Price, who stopped 35 shots. “We haven’t been playing as well as we’d like to. It was definitely a step in the right direction.”
Tomas Vokoun also made 35 saves for the Panthers, whose thoughts in recent days have been dominated by Zednik’s injury.
And reminders of Zednik were everywhere.
A blood drive – a nod to Zednik needing five units of blood at Buffalo General Hospital – took place outside the building, and the team ended its pre-game ceremonies with a brief video tribute in the injured forward’s honour.
“I think we responded well,” said Jokinen, who spoke with Zednik earlier Wednesday. “We played hard. We just didn’t find a way to score.
“Zed’s spirit is still here,” Jokinen added. “And we’re going to do all we can for him and his family.”
Doctors believe Zednik could be back in South Florida by the weekend, and on Wednesday, Zednik’s wife released a statement thanking countless people for their support.
“Richard continues to improve and we are encouraged each day,” Jessica Zednik said. “We thank you for respecting our privacy and would ask everyone to continue to keep Richard in their thoughts over the next few days.”
Not only were the Panthers – who scored 28 goals in their previous six games – playing without Zednik, their lines were further juggled because Stephen Weiss missed the game with the flu. Weiss and Zednik are both among Florida’s top five scorers, combining for 25 goals and 34 assists this season.
Montador did his part to pick up the slack at 12:04 of the first, as a Florida power play was expiring.
From the high slot, he dumped the puck toward the net, probably looking more for a deflection than anything else. He got one – just not from a teammate, but from Montreal defenceman Andrei Markov, who brushed the puck and redirected it past Price for the game’s first goal.
The way Vokoun was playing, it looked like one goal might be enough. He made some sensational saves, none better than when he stoned Koivu on a short-handed breakaway with 5 1/2 minutes left in the second period.
But with the help of some lucky bounces, the Canadiens solved Vokoun with 7:26 left.
Off a faceoff from the right circle, the puck bounced oddly and diagonally across the slot, as Vokoun tried to knock it away. He couldn’t reach it, and Higgins stuck his stick past Florida defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and deflected the puck into the net, tying the game at 1.
“We were just trying to find a way to beat Vokoun and we did it with a harmless play,” Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau said.
Notes: Florida is the only team to have a winning all-time record in regular-season games against Montreal. … There were no stoppages of play in the final 5:19 of the second period. … The Panthers have a power-play goal in six of their past seven games.