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Canadiens tame Panthers to close on division lead

MONTREAL (Reuters) - The Montreal Canadiens moved within two points of first place in the Northeast Division with a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers on Wednesday.

Jeff Halpern, Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta scored three straight goals to give the Canadiens a 3-1 lead as they closed in on the division-leading Boston Bruins.

Montreal's in-form captain Gionta scored a team-leading 19th goal of the season to follow up his two in Tuesday's comeback shootout win over the Washington Capitals.

"Things are bouncing the right way for me, but ultimately, it's the overall play of the team that's making the difference," Gionta told reporters. "We need to keep that momentum because we're doing the right things."

Montreal goaltender Alex Auld made 33 saves to help the Canadiens (29-18-5) earn their second consecutive win.

Florida rookie Scott Timmins opened the scoring 7:30 into the first period with his first NHL goal after making his debut against Toronto on Tuesday.

Halpern tied the game 1-1 for the Canadiens at 4:50 in the second and the home team took the lead at 5:46 in the third when Plekanec scored with a wrister. Gionta then added a third just over five minutes later also with a wrister after an assist from Max Pacioretty .

Stephen Weiss pulled the visitors within one goal with 2:10 left but the Panthers (22-23-6) could not avoid losing their third straight game despite the best efforts of goalie Tomas Vokoun, who finished with 37 stops.

Florida rookie Evgeny Dadonov sustained a hand injury late in the first period as the Panthers lost for the seventh time in eight games. They trail the Atlanta Thrashers by seven points in a race for a playoff spot.

"Hopefully we can keep it going as long as possible," Plekanec said of the Canadiens form. "We need to keep grinding and keep winning and we'll be all good."

(Reporting by Jahaml Corner in Los Angeles. Edited by Patrick Johnston)