Tuesday was a disaster if you were a Florida Panthers fan scoreboard watching on the first night of the ‘second half’ of the season. Score after score that rolled in seemed to go against what the Panthers needed to maintain their position in the top 8 in the Eastern Conference. None worse than the news that the Washington Capitals earned a point in a 4-3 OT loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, giving the Caps a point and sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division. It also pushed the Panthers into ninth place, their first day out of the top 8 since October 22.
Luckily for them, the Panthers had a chance to make the stay below eighth short-lived as a regulation win Wednesday over the Caps would vault them back over the Capitals, into first. And that’s just what they did behind a strong games from forward Mikael Samuelsson and goalie Scott Clemmensen in beating Washington 4-2.
As most fans would’ve hoped, the Panthers came out with strong effort, enough to put Capitals netminder Michael Neuvirth under siege for most of the period. Despite getting 15 shots through on Neuvirth, the Cats couldn’t get one to light the lamp and the first period ended with no score. The scoreless tie wouldn’t last long into the second period as Samuelsson skated just inside the center red line and fired a shot (from about 80 feet) that caught Neuvirth at a bad angle and ricocheted off the right post and into the net for a 1-0 Panthers lead. Although it was the softest of soft goals, it seemed like a just reward for the hard work the Panthers had put out the previous 20 minutes of play. But the Caps weren’t going to let go of first place so easily. At 11:53 of the second, Brooks Laich won a puck battle in the Panthers left corner, skated in on Clemmensen and beat him over his left shoulder to even the game up.
The game went into the third knotted at one giving Panthers fans the nightmarish possibility of an overtime game. A three-goal third period by the Cats would squash those fears. Samuelsson would give them a lead they would not relinquish with a power play tally at 4:57 of the third after some great passing between Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Brian Campbell, who made the last pass to Samuelsson in the deep slot. Weiss would add the all-important third goal just under the half way mark of the period. The goal, which was deflected into the net off of Weiss’ shoulder, was originally waved off by the officials when they thought it had bounced off of his forearm. A lengthy review from the war room in Toronto FINALLY came back in the Cats favor after they overturned the original call and made it 3-1 Panthers.
But, as has been the case this season, the Cats always find a way to make it interesting for the home crowd. An ill-advised Jason Garrison pass in his own zone was intercepted by John Carlson, who rocketed home a wrister past Clemmensen to cut the lead to 3-2 with 2:21 left to play. But Shawn Matthias‘ unassisted empty netter put the baby to bed with :53 ticks left in the game.
While it was a disappointing crowd in terms of size (announced crowd was a shade over 15K), they certainly got to head out to their cars with a renewed sense of optimism as the Panthers answered a huge challenge by controlling much of the game in a must-win scenario. And while the Capitals were missing some big guns in their lineup, the Panthers leading scorer, Kris Versteeg missed the game as he continues to fight off the flu, along with injured defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Ed Jovanovski. January was rough on the team and the psyche of its fanbase as a sizeable lead evaporated over the course of 31 days amidst a brutal schedule. But Wednesday’s result, coupled with similar results over the next three games (all against division opponents) could easily make January seem like a distant memory.
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Topics: Brian Campbell, Brooks Laich, Dmitry Kulikov, Eastern Conference, Ed Jovanovski, First Place, Florida Panthers, Jason Garrison, John Carlson, Kris Versteeg, Michael Neuvirth, Mikael Samuelsson, Scott Clemmensen, Shawn Matthias, Southeaast Division, Stephen Weiss, Tampa Bay Lightning, Tomas Fleischmann, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets