Jason Garrison with Troy Brouwer Image Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE

Game Day Preview: Capitals vs. Panthers. Division Lead On The Line.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: 26-19-4 (56 PTS.) vs. FLORIDA PANTHERS: 22-15-11 (55 PTS.)

GAME TIME: 8:00 P.M. EASTERN

OPPOSITION SITE: CAPITALS OUTSIDER

TSN GAMEDAY

The Florida Panthers will head into tonight’s game sitting in 9th place in the Eastern Conference.  A victory over division rival Washington will catapult them back into first place in the Southeast Division, as well as third in the Conference.  The balance of the season is going to look a lot like this unless the Panthers can string together some victories and create some distance between them and the other teams that are chasing the same destination: playoffs.

With exactly seven days off since their last game, the Panthers come into the game tonight on a 3-3-4 stretch in their last 10, including a loss in the shootout (I hate shootouts) to the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 3-2.  That loss puts Florida at 3-6 in the shootout and 4-11 in games that have gone past regulation.  I certainly hope that we are not pointing to those numbers in April as the reason why we aren’t in the post season.

On top of shootout woes, as the Panthers seemed to be getting healthy, we learned this morning that forward Scottie Upshall is going to have hernia surgery on Thursday and will be lost for 4-6 weeks.  Top that with Jose Theodore still nursing a knee injury, and the injuries to defencemen Ed Jovanovski and Dmitry Kulikov, the Panthers are still not at 100%.  Forward Kris Versteeg is expected to miss tonight’s game as well with flu symptoms.  While Theodore remains the number one goalie, Scott Clemmensen will make his third straight appearance tonight in goal for Florida.  Clemmensen is 1-0-2 with a 2.15 GAA in the last three games that he’s played, and while Theodore was 0-1-1 in two games in early January, he was 6-1-2, with a 2.03 GAA in his last 11 games at the Bank Atlantic Center.

This will be the third of six meetings between the two clubs, and there will be two more this month before they meet for the final time in April.  If you want to look at games that are important on the schedule, you have to look no further than these.   We can’t blame injuries, as every team has them, and fortunately we’ve survived some pretty rough patches, but as the season grinds down, the games and the points mean significantly more with playoffs hanging in the balance.

You want some good news?  Well, besides Jack Skille coming back to the lineup tonight and potentially Marco Sturm, the Washington Capitals will be without former ninth round pick of the Florida Panthers Alexander Ovechkin who will be serving the final game of his three game suspension.  Also missing for the Caps will be centre Nicklas Backstrom who is out with a head injury.  Be that as it may, you can’t take this Capitals team lightly, and as many teams do when their star players have fallen temporarily, they will figure out a way to play even harder to make up the difference.  Case in point was forward Mathieu Perreault’s first career hat trick in a win over the Boston Bruins right before the All-Star break.

With that though comes inconsistency as Washington lost in overtime last night to the Tampa Bay Lightning when Steven Stamkos scored the game winner after Tampa relinquished a two goal lead earlier in the game.  The achillies heel for the Caps, and what may make Ovechkin’s return more than welcome is that the Caps were 0 for three on the power play, making it the sixth time in seven games that they were unable to convert a power play chance.  Perreault had this to say about their captain missing:

“For sure it’s different when usually your power play (centers) around (Ovechkin) and then he’s not there,” Perreault said. “We gotta try to do different things. We didn’t get much going tonight, we gotta get better at it.”

Tomas Vokoun who started last night will get the evening off, as coach Dale Hunter will start Michael Neuvirth in goal, thus eliminating the Vokoun versus Theodore matchup that many were looking forward to.  Neuvirth is 6-7-3 so far this season, but is 1-0-1 with a 1.97 GAA in his last two games.  His overall goals against average for the season is 3.08.

One important stat regarding the Caps is that since December 26th they have gone 9-4-2 to challenge the Panthers for the divisional lead.  They’ve done this without the services of Backstrom as well as defenceman Mike Green who’s been out with a groin injury.

Home ice advantage for the Panthers must come into play here as this game along with Friday’s game at home against the Jets represents an opportunity to make some headway.  With six points on the line, that includes Saturday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, this could be the perfect time to start winning streak. In regulation!

Nerdy Numbers/Notes:

* The Panthers have lost 193 man games to injury, while the Capitals have lost 154.

* Jason Garrison continues to lead all NHL defencemen with 13 goals this season.

* The Panthers are 15-1-6 when scoring first.

* Brian Campbell is three points shy of 350 in his NHL career.

* Washington is 17-7-1 against the Panthers in the last 25 games, outscoring them 88-64.

* Washington leads the series 49-35-9-7.

* Washington is 16-6-0 when scoring a power play goal, and 11-1-0 when scoring a power play goal, and not allowing a power play goal.

* The Capitals are 15-0-0 when leading after two periods.  One of only 5 teams that are undefeated when having a lead going into the final frame.

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Tags: Alex Ovechkin'nicklas Backstrom Florida Panthers Jose Theodore Kris Versteeg Scott Clemmensen Tomas Vokoun Washington Capitals

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