MONTREAL -- The Florida Panthers can start looking at the standings again.
Jesse Winchester and Nick Bjugstad scored 2:27 apart in the second period and Scott Clemmensen took care of the rest, stopping 17 shots to lead the Panthers a 2-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday.
The Panthers (12-17-5) have won three straight and five of six to move within three points of the idle Ottawa Senators for sixth place in the Atlantic Division.
"We're finally starting to feel confident and, so to speak, play with a little swagger. We're a group that's going to rely on hard work and a lot of energy, and lately we're a motivated group," said Panthers forward Scottie Upshall, who had an assist on Bjugstad's goal. "We've been through a rough patch in the first 30 games, and it's time to move on to the next stage of the season."
When asked if he pays much attention to the standings, Upshall admitted it has been difficult to do for most of this season.
"We do [look at the standings], but for a while there it was getting ugly so we were just worrying about the next shift, the next game," Upshall said. "When you get into these losing situations you just have to get out of the funk, and looking at the standings is not the way to do it. Now, once we've figured our game out and we know what it takes to win … we're starting to find a little bit of an identity."
As he was finished, Upshall asked where exactly the Senators were in relation to the Panthers in the division standings.
"Oh yeah?" Upshall said with a smile. "That's nice."
The Panthers have created this run with strong defensive play, and it was fully in evidence Sunday. The 18 shots allowed against the Canadiens was a new season-low for the Panthers and it was the sixth time in nine games they allowed 26 or fewer in a game.
The win also allowed the Panthers to improve to 8-8-1 under interim coach Peter Horachek after going 3-9-4 to start the season.
"I think the guys are believers," said Horachek, who took over the Panthers on Nov. 8. "There will continually be some tweaks and some things that have to be done, but guys are buying in. I think we're doing everything a lot better in a lot of areas.
"The players are putting it on the line. They want to win and they want to get the respect for the way they're playing."
Alex Galchenyuk scored a third-period power-play goal and Peter Budaj made 23 saves for the Canadiens (20-12-3), who lost their third in four games, scoring three times in that span.
Montreal coach Michel Therrien said his team had nothing left in the tank after arriving late from a 1-0 overtime win on the road against the New York Islanders on Saturday to play its 11th game in 18 days.
"Energy-wise I can tell they're drained," Therrien said. "When you're drained, there's no more juice, physically you're tired and when you're tired physically, mentally your execution is not quite there. We take bad decisions mentally.
"What we've been asking from that group for the past three weeks is very demanding, they're human beings. They gave what they got. [Monday] they'll have a day off from the rink, go visit kids at the hospital, and we'll regroup for our next game [against the Phoenix Coyotes] on Tuesday."
Montreal captain Brian Gionta, however, refused to accept that as a reason for the loss.
"No, no excuses," Gionta said, repeating the mantra that has been painted on the wall in the Canadiens' dressing room since Therrien took over as coach prior to last season. "We just weren't doing enough."
The Galchenyuk goal did snap an 0-for-16 drought over a seven-game stretch for a Canadiens power play that ranked sixth in the NHL entering the game.
However, the power play couldn't convert when Mike Weaver and Upshall took consecutive penalties late in the third period, with the Panthers penalty-killing unit limiting them to one shot on goal over the two power plays, including 35 seconds with a two-man advantage.
In fact, that one shot on goal was the only one the Panthers allowed over the final 7:22 of regulation time, blocking five Montreal attempts in that span.
"I don't know how many of those shots made it to the net," Clemmensen said. "Guys were diving in front, had good sticks out there collecting passes, being in good position, it was great. Selling out that way, that's how you win games."
When told that one Montreal shot attempt made it through to him, Clemmensen went over the end of the third period in his head and agreed that was accurate.
"That's just great from a team standpoint. I tip my hat to these guys in front of me," Clemmensen said. "If you don't have to make a save, it sure makes it a lot easier."
Already missing forward Jonathan Huberdeau due to a foot injury sustained in a 3-2 shootout win against the Washington Capitals on Friday, the Panthers lost defenseman Erik Gudbranson after the first period with a lower-body injury.
Huberdeau was wearing a walking boot on his right foot after blocking a shot against Washington, but said he hoped to play in Florida's next game on the road against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, and Horachek said after the game that he does not believe Gudbranson's injury is serious.
After controlling the play in a scoreless first period by outshooting the Canadiens 14-8, the Panthers opened the scoring at 4:44 of the second. A Montreal defensive breakdown left Winchester all alone in the slot, and Tomas Kopecky found him for his fifth of the season.
The Panthers had a 3-on-2 break into the Montreal zone a few shifts later, and Tomas Fleischmann found Bjugstad at the faceoff circle for a shot that fooled Budaj for his sixth of the season.
Galchenyuk made it 2-1 at 2:28 of the third period, cashing in a rebound of a Gionta shot for his 10th goal of the season to make it 2-1. Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban picked up the second assist on the goal, snapping a six-game pointless streak.
But the Panthers held off a Canadiens charge at the end for another win, and it has some of them thinking what was totally unthinkable a few weeks ago.
"We've got a lot of work to do to get back to .500 and hopefully sneak into a playoff spot somehow," said defenseman Brian Campbell, who played a game-high 31:17, his third straight game above 30 minutes. "We feel like we love our game plan our coach sets out, he has us working hard every night. It's fun to go out there and work hard for each other."
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