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Montreal Canadiens right wing Brendan Gallagher moves in on Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo during the second period in Montreal, on March 19, 2018.Graham Hughes

Aaron Ekblad scored in the first period and the Florida Panthers inched closer to a playoff spot with a 2-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Monday night.

Aleksander Barkov also scored for Florida (36-27-7), which moved to three points behind idle New Jersey for the second NHL Eastern Conference wild-card spot with two games in hand on the Devils. The Panthers are 10-2-1 in their last 13 games.

Montreal (26-34-12), coming off a 4-0 defeat Saturday in Toronto, was shut out for a second game in a row and a 12th time this season – three of them against Florida.

The Panthers had a 40-28 edge in shots on the Canadiens, who stayed in the game thanks to stellar goaltending from Antti Niemi. Roberto Luongo got his third shutout of the season.

The opening 10 minutes saw two fights, one of which had Ekblad sparring with Nicolas Deslauriers.

It may have fired up the big defenceman because he stole a puck from Michael McCarron, deked past defenceman Jeff Petry and beat Niemi with a move to the backhand for an unassisted goal at 18:31.

Jacob De La Rose thought he had one back for Montreal 17 seconds later, but a video review showed Alex Galchenyuk was offside by a toenail and it was waived off.

Barkov got his 26th of the season at 6:23 of the third frame when his shot from the left side went in off Montreal forward Logan Shaw.

The Panthers are in a stretch with seven of eight games on the road, including Tuesday night in Ottawa.

Star goalie Carey Price returned to the Montreal lineup from a concussion suffered Feb. 20. He backed up Niemi.

Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff says goaltender interference is “inherently a judgement call” and needs to be accepted as such. NHL general managers discussed the rule on the first day of a three-day meeting in Florida.

The Canadian Press

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