Gionta scores twice to push Habs past Panthers

MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens made doubly sure they didn't squander a late two-goal lead for a second night in a row.

Brian Gionta scored twice -- including Montreal's second empty-net goal -- and Jaroslav Halak came within 3:36 of recording a shutout, leading the Canadiens to a 4-1 victory over the Florida Panthers on Thursday night.

Halak, who made 23 saves, lost his bid for a shutout when Radek Dvorak scored 16:24 into the third to draw Florida to 2-1.

Montreal blew a 2-0 lead one night earlier in Buffalo when the Sabres twice took advantage of an extra attacker with goalie Ryan Miller pulled to beat Carey Price for two goals late in the third. The Canadiens went on to lose 3-2 in a shootout to extend their losing skid to 0-1-2 in the wake of a season-high six-game winning streak.

"We all knew what happened last night against Buffalo and we didn't want it to happen again," said Tomas Plekanec, who scored his 100th goal into an empty net at 18:36 to restore the Canadiens' two-goal margin at 3-1.

Gionta added his second of the game -- his 25th of the season -- with Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun pulled once again to make it a three-goal lead.

"As soon as they scored the one goal I think we started to play better," Halak said. "That was great to see the guys respond on a goal and we had some scoring chances and it was good to see that we didn't give up."

Pouliot scored an unassisted effort for his 17th goal 12:40 in. Gionta made it a 2-0 lead later in the first period.

The Canadiens, sixth overall in the Eastern Conference with 82 points, moved within one point of fifth-place Ottawa.

Vokoun stopped 27 shots for Florida, which had won two in a row. The Panthers slipped to 12th place in the East with 71 points, one behind Tampa Bay, which won 5-3 in Boston.

"We had some chances," right wing Nathan Horton said. "I think [Halak] played good when we did, even with traffic and tip-ins. He's a pretty good goalie. We played hard but it wasn't enough and we lost."

Florida left wing David Booth left early in the second period after he was flattened by Jaroslav Spacek's open-ice shoulder check to the head.

"I think he was just looking back to grab the puck," Horton said. "It wasn't a dirty hit, I don't think, but it's just a tough one."

A Panthers spokesman said Booth was taken to a hospital for precautionary reasons after being examined by Canadiens physician Dr. David Mulder, who said Booth was alert and coherent.

"The tests have come back negative -- in a positive sense, so to speak -- so we'll keep him overnight just for precautionary measures but we fully expect he'll travel with us [Friday] to Ottawa," Panthers GM Randy Sexton said.

Travis Moen was wearing a visor on his helmet as he returned to Montreal's lineup after missing the Canadiens' 3-2 shootout loss in Buffalo on Wednesday night. Moen needed 50 stitches to close a horrific gash that ran from his left eyelid and up along his forehead after he was cut by Ottawa forward Matt Cullen's skate in Monday night's 2-0 loss to the Senators.

Pouliot intercepted Dvorak's attempted pass to Bryan Allen and moved to the slot, where he put a backhand past Vokoun.

Gionta drove a blast through Vokoun from the right side at 16:38 for his 24th goal to make it 2-0.

Spacek delivered his devastating check on Booth head-on 1:10 into the second and no penalty was called on the play.

"He was coming and there was a kind of scramble and he tried to reach for the puck," Spacek said. "He was kind of low and when he turned I was standing right there and basically he just ran at me. I almost tried to kind of go away from him and I just hit him on the bad spot."

Booth, who missed 45 games earlier this season after he sustained a concussion on a blindside hit by Philadelphia's Mike Richards on Oct. 24, lay face down on the ice after the hit and trainer Dave Zenobi was immediately summoned to attend to him. A bloodstain remained on the ice after Booth was helped off the ice to the dressing room.

"I think everybody could see it didn't look good but hopefully it wasn't as bad as his last one," Horton said. "We're just hoping for the best."

Earlier Thursday, the executive board of the players' union voted to accept a new temporary rule that will ban hits to the head against unsuspecting players. The decision took effect immediately, starting with the 11 games Thursday night.

Game notes
Booth had scored four goals in his four previous games. He has eight goals and 16 points in 28 games this season. ... C Glen Metropolit and LW Mathieu Darche were healthy scratches for Montreal.