For 50 minutes or so, it just seemed too easy. The Florida Panthers held a 5-2 third period over Southeast Division rival Washington Capitals, cruising their way to another win and a seven point division lead. Eight minutes and two Capitals goals later and a game that was a laugher got real interesting for the home side. But after a mad scramble over the final 1:46, the Cats were able to keep the game-tying goal out of their net and get the 5-4 win.
This game was a huge one for the Cats and the players weren’t afraid to acknowledge that fact coming in and, it showed in their play early. After killing off an early Kris Versteeg cross-checking minor, the Panthers went to work on Caps netminder Michael Neuvirth, whom Dale Hunter tabbed as his starter over former Panther Tomas Vokoun. On the power play, Stephen Weiss threw a shot on net that was deflected past Nuevirth by another former Panther, defenseman Dennis Wideman, who was shadowing Tomas Fleischmann. On the ensuing faceoff, Mike Santorelli took a pass from Dmitry Kulikov, raced up the right wing and sent a knuckler of a shot that Nuevirth couldn’t stop :13 later to make it 2-0. The Panthers got their second power play goal of the night with 3:29 left in the first when Kulikov one-timed a Brian Campbell cross-ice pass into the Caps net for a 3-0. Despite the big deficit, Hunter kept Vokoun on the bench with a baseball cap on his head.
The Capitals showed some push back when they answered Kulikov’s goal when Mike Knuble got Washington on the board :40 later to make it 3-1 right before the end of the first.
Not content with a two goal lead, the Cats kept their feet on the gas. Sean Bergenheim added the Panthers third power play goal of the evening on a wraparound attempt from a scramble created by another booming Jason Garrison point shot. About nine minutes later, the Flash Mob struck again as Fleischmann skated towards net and drew every Capital on the ice towards him, who then proceeded to pass to a wide open Weiss show buried his shot to make it 5-1. It looked the Panthers would carry that score into the second intermission, but Cody Eakin had other ideas as he scored at 19:40.
If the Panthers were tired following their four game, cross-country road trip, it showed in the third period as the aggressive Panthers were replaced by a more passive bunch and the Caps took advantage. Brooks Laich scored at 12:09 of the third to make it 5-3 and turned what had been an easy night as a fan to an uneasy night. After several great chances, the Capitals had Panther fans fearing the worst when Jason Chimera, Washington’s leading goal scorer, struck to make it a 5-4 game with 1:44 to play. But the Scott Clemmensen was able to hold off a furious final charge to preserve the win and, the rats rained down upon the ice of the Bank Atlantic Center to celebrate a big division win.
It’s easy to let some of the lust come off this game because the Capitals rallied down 5-1 to make the score what it is was but, remember this: Washington is still an immensely talented team despite the rut they find themselves in. It wasn’t but two seasons ago the Panthers went 0-5-1 for the season against many of the same players. But, make no mistake, this is a big step forward for the Cats at this juncture of the season. The secondary players played a big role for the second game in a row, and it resulted in another five goals. If they can get that same kind of results from those players, as I said following Saturday night’s win, this team is going to be a major factor in the Eastern Conference. And there’s another huge measuring stick game coming up on Thursday in Boston.
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Topics: Brian Campbell, Brooks Liach, Dennis Wideman, Dmitry Kulikov, Flash Mob, Florida Panthers, Jason Chimera, Jason Garrison, Kris Versteeg, Michael Nuevirth, Mike Santorelli, Sean Bergenheim, Soupy, Stephen Weiss, Tomas Vokoun, Washington Capitals