WASHINGTON CAPITALS: 13-11-1 (27 PTS.) vs. FLORIDA PANTHERS: 14-8-4 (32 PTS.)
GAME TIME: 7:30 P.M. Eastern
OPPOSITION SITE: CAPITALS OUTSIDER
The Florida Panthers come home from a crazy coast to coast road trip where they took four out of eight points in some pretty tough places to play, to face off against the Washington Capitals tonight in hopes of extending their lead over the division rival. Yes you read that correctly. As it stands right now the Panthers have a five point lead over the Caps who started the season with seven consecutive wins, but have struggled so much lately that they’ve replaced their coach (Bruce Boudreau) and have trade rumors flying about their players (Alexander Semin).
The Panthers who are first in the Southeast Division and third in the conference, are coming off a 5-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks in San Jose, which saw them play one of the better games of the season so far. Limiting the high powered offence of the Sharks to 26 shots, the Panthers did get off to a slow start and fell behind early, but came back to score three unanswered goals to shock San Jose, and for a change the scoring came from places we haven’t seen in awhile. Marco Sturm, defenceman Dmitry Kulikov and hard working forward Jack Skille all contributed to the cause, and as you’ve read here many times, those are the players that will have to chip in to make the Panthers successful.
As the Panthers sit at the top of their division for the third week in a row, it’s worth noting that they haven’t been in first place this late in the season since way back in 2000. The turnaround from recent years that has been orchestrated by general manager Dale Tallon has been exciting to watch, and as George Richards notes in his on Frozen Pond blog from Sunday, three of Tallon’s pals from Chicago, Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell and Tomas Kopecky have combined for 17 goals and 43 assists. Pretty impressive you’d have to agree.
What you’re also seeing this season is a level of confidence from the skaters and the goaltending that has allowed the Panthers to not only hang on to leads late in the game, but also have them able to come from behind in games when they’ve been down early. The resiliency of this team continues to impress. At some point the rest of the NHL will believe that this team is for real. If the secondary scoring starts to kick in as it did against the Sharks, and the goaltending continues it’s strong play with Jose Theodore leading the way, it’s entirely possible that the playoff drought will be over. Ironically just about a month ago, I was thinking that if the Panthers were able to just keep pace in the top eight of the conference and not worry about catching Washington, we’d be in good shape. Looking at things tonight, we can create some real distance by beating the Caps, and solidifying a top three finish which means home ice advantage in the first round of the post season. While I praise Theo, it appears that Scott Clemmensen will be making his second consecutive start tonight in goal for Florida after his win over the Sharks on Saturday night.
Before Saturday night’s 3-2 overtime win over Ottawa the Caps were in a 2-7-1 funk that led to the firing of Bruce Boudreau. Whether Bruce “lost the room” or the players just stopped playing for him, we’ll never know for sure. However the bottom line is that this is a team that is loaded with talent and their record is no where near where most people expected them to be. If indeed the players stopped playing for Bruce, then shame on them. New coach Dale Hunter won’t be any nicer or gracious with their ice time, and is going to do things his way until he finds a strategy that works. When Alex Ovechkin gets only 20 minutes of ice time in an overtime game, you know Dale isn’t giving away minutes, even to the team’s superstar captain. He’s sending a message, and the message is, earn your time.
Niklas Backstrom a very talented forward is the teams leading scorer with 27 points which is eight more than Alex. That says something to me, and while Ovechkin deny’s that there was a riff between him and Boudreau, I had watched a segment on Hockey Night In Canada showing Ovechkin’s performance in a game that was unlike what we’ve been accustomed to seeing. But as the team tries to move on from the drama created by the firing, forward Bruce Laich feels as though they could be out of their funk:
“Try and make baby steps every day,” Laich said. “We were better in our second game from our first game and I thought we were better tonight. We get that first win out of the way now and now we get out on the road. We were not getting the results and now we’ve got out of a little funk with a win.”
The Capitals who have won the Southeast division four consecutive years are in unfamiliar territory as they trail the Panthers by five points. Closing the gap tonight is certainly on their mind, but this isn’t the same team that Washington has beat 11 of the past 13 games which includes a 3-0 shutout this past October.
One reason that the Caps may have been sputtering has been the loss of defenceman Mike Green who has only played eight games this season since being sidelined with a groin injury. Green an offensive defenceman has been sorely missed by Washington’s power play that is scoreless in it’s last 11 opportunities, spanning four games. The Caps also have some players that are struggling to score such as Mike Knuble who is pointless in his last 14 games, and only has seven on the season. Dennis Wideman wh0′s usually good for a racking up assists has only two points in his previous 11 games, and is only a -5 (snarky comment).
Unfortunately the homecoming for Caps goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who manned the pipes for the Panthers for four years, will not occur tonight as Michael Nuevirth has been announced as the starter in goal. Vokoun as you recall (and his agent) turned down a three year deal to test the free agent market, and signed in Washington for a paltry $1.5 million dollars for one year, hoping that he’d have a chance at competing for a Stanley Cup. Still too early to evaluate, but I would bet that he may be having second thoughts based on where the Panthers are in the standings compared to the Capitals. With Washington’s high powered offense and sometimes poor attention to defence Vokoun’s numbers are very similar to when he was a Panther. His GAA is 2.72 and his save percentage is .909. If Washington is going to succeed however, he’ll have to reduce both of those, but he’ll need help from the players in front of him.
* The next game that Jose Theodore will play in will be his 600th.
* Kris Versteeg is two assists away from 100 in his career.
* Stephen Weiss has 36 points (11-25) in 43 games against the Capitals.
* Flash set career highs on Saturday with nine shots on goal, and 22:12 of ice time. It was also his sixth multi point game of the season.
* Brooks Laich will play his 500th game as a Washington Capital tonight.
* Washington has killed off 18 of the last 19 power play opportunities against them.
* Washington leads the series 49-34-9-7, and tonight will be the 100th meeting between the two teams.
* New Caps coach Dale Hunter previously coached the London Knights in the OHL. His record was 451-189-23-24.
* Jose Theodore spent two seasons in Washington winning 62 games.
* Tomas Fleischmann was a Capital for five plus seasons before going to Colorado last season. In 2009-2010 Flash had 51 points in 69 games.
* Matt Bradley spent six seasons in D.C. with 2009-2010 being his best as he piled up 24 points.
* Tomas Vokoun spent four seasons as a Florida Panther with a 101-108-30 record.
* Dennis Wideman appeared in 61 games for the Panthers last season and is most fondly remembered for his -26 rating. Not sure if those we related to empty net goals against.
* Joel Ward had a brief stint with the Panthers back in 2005 during training camp, however was released.
Thanks for reading. We welcome your comments and suggestions.
Follow the Rat Pack on Twitter: me @TheRatTrick , David Lasseter @davidlasseter , Josh Luecht @joshluecht, Patrick McLaughlin @PatrickRattrick, Scott Mullin @GreatScottsman, Cameron Tahernia @Lord_Panther, David Rodriguez @davidbub_2 and Paige Lewis @peejlewiz. Also, please join our Facebook Fan Page and hit the like button, send us photos, and make some comments.