Montreal Canadiens\' Matt D\'Agostini is stopped by Florida Panthers\' Keith Ballard during first period NHL hockey action Thursday, January 7, 2010 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
MONTREAL - Benoit Pouliot's career is getting a second wind with the Montreal Canadiens.
Pouliot scored the winner and Jaroslav Halak made 38 saves for his second shutout of the season and fifth of his career as the Canadiens beat the Florida Panthers 2-0 on Thursday night. Pouliot, the 2005 fourth overall draft pick acquired Nov. 23 from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Guillaume Latendresse, established a new career high with his sixth goal of the season.
It was Pouliot's fourth goal in eight games with the Canadiens, putting him nearly halfway to his total of nine goals in 65 career games with the Wild.
"I didn't get the ice time that I have right now, so that's a plus for me right there," Pouliot said. "(In Minnesota) it was a little tougher. I was younger and you didn't want to make mistakes, and when I did I knew I would have to pay for them."
Pouliot played 16:53 on a line with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, his third straight game with at least 16 minutes of ice time. In 14 games with the Wild this season, Pouliot had two goals and two assists, while only once playing over 16 minutes.
"You don't want to mistakes, but I know I've had a few lately in games and he still played me," Pouliot said, referring to Canadiens coach Jacques Martin. "I came up with some goals that helped me stay in the game and stay with my linemates."
Pouliot came to Montreal with a reputation for having a poor work ethic, but Martin said he hasn't seen any evidence of that thus far.
"Benoit is a good kid," Martin said. "It was probably a good experience for him in Minnesota. He's getting a second opportunity. We like his speed and his skill, and it's a matter of working hard.
"What I like about his game is I think he goes to the net, he goes into the dirty areas, and a lot of his goals have been scored that way. But what we need from him is consistency. Every night we need that kind of effort."
Gionta scored an insurance goal into an empty net for the Canadiens (22-21-3), who snapped a four-game home losing streak.
Tomas Vokoun stopped 37 shots to lose for the fourth time in five starts for the Panthers (17-20-7). Florida has dropped five of its last six.
"You don't get points in this league for playing good games," said Stephen Weiss, the Panthers' leading goal-scorer, who failed to find the net in a sixth straight game. "We have to find a way to put pucks in the net and get points."
Halak was facing the Panthers in a second straight start after coming out on the winning end of a 5-4 decision on New Year's Eve in Florida. He improved his record to 12-6-0 on the season, and to 8-0-0 when facing teams sitting below the Canadiens in the standings this season.
"Our guys were skating so we didn't give them many chances," Halak said. "But when we gave them, I stopped them."
The Canadiens top-ranked power play squandered an excellent opportunity to open the scoring in the first period when Panthers captain Bryan McCabe and Weiss took penalties 20 seconds apart. Montreal managed four shots on goal, though none of them were particularly dangerous and the Panthers escaped the threat still with the game still scoreless.
But with only 12.1 seconds left to play in the first, Pouliot gave the Canadiens a lead they would not relinquish.
Gomez skated the puck out of the Canadiens end and into the Panthers zone before feeding a streaking Pouliot, who did a nice job of reaching forward to corral the pass before quickly snapping a shot high on Vokoun's short side.
The second period was a free-flowing, back and forth affair with both teams getting a lot of pucks on net, but not necessarily generating a ton of scoring chances. Glen Metropolit hit the post behind Vokoun on a one-timer off a nice feed from Georges Laraque about seven minutes in, while Halak got across his crease to make a nice save on Cory Stillman just under a minute later.
In the third, with Vokoun pulled for an extra attacker, Jordan Leopold took a shot that trickled past Halak and into his crease, but it was cleared away by Jaroslav Spacek. About 15 seconds later, Gionta found the empty net for his 10th goal of the season.
Notes: Habs wingers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn remain out with lower body injuries. Andrei Kostitsyn missed his third game with a knee injury, and it was the first time in six games this season the Canadiens won without him in the lineup. Sergei Kostitsyn missed his fourth game with an ankle injury. ...Habs D Ryan O'Byrne missed his third game while attending to family matters in his native British Columbia. He is expected to rejoin the team this weekend. ...The Panthers were without wingers David Booth (concussion), Kendall McArdle (upper body) and D Dimitry Kulikov (lower body).