Vokoun already has a shutout against his old team this season. Photo Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Game Day Preview: First Place Battle, Panthers vs Capitals


FLORIDA PANTHERS:  24-16-11 (59 PTS)  vs  WASHINGTON CAPITALS:  27-21-4 (58 PTS)




Stop me if you’ve heard this before this season but, Tuesday’s game against the Washington Capitals is another monster game for the Florida Panthers. A regulation win, and you retake a three point lead in the Southeast division with a game in hand. Lose and not only do you lose your grip on first place in the division, but you fall from 3rd in the Eastern Conference to 9th and out of a playoff spot. Both teams come into this contest losing their last game. The Panthers took a 6-3 loss to the surging Tampa Bay Lightning on the road and the Caps endured a 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins.

When the Cats take the ice tonight, they’ll see a familiar face in the Washington cage as Tomas Vokoun is expected to get the start. He’s been on the pine the last two times these two teams met (both Florida wins) after shutting out the Panthers 3-0 back in October. And while his save percentage of .917 isn’t where you want it for a starting netminder, his goals against is right around his career average (currently 2.54 this season) and he’s has managed to compile 21 wins in 38 starts to go with three shutouts.

While the Capitals will once again be without Nicklas Backstrom, they will have someone back in their lineup that did not play last times these teams met: Alexander Ovechkin. The Washington captain was serving the final game of a three game suspension when these teams played last Wednesday in Sunrise. Ovechkin has been a thorn in the Panthers paw for years but has gone without a goal in the two contests he’s played against them this season. He may not be the player he used to be, but he’s still capable of greatness on any given night if the gets the chance. As one would easily expect, limiting his chances, especially in the open ice is paramount to the Florida defense. Hit him early, hit him often.

And as of this writing, Brooks Laich’s status for this game is up in the air. He participated in the morning skate and could very well play but it’s not certain, accoring to Katie Carerra of The Washington Post.

And speaking of the Florida defense, you can’t say enough good things about injury call up Tyson Strachan. Saturday against Tampa, he picked up his second point in four games while playing with a +1 rating. And on the defensive end, the best compliment I can pay him is that I haven’t noticed him around any big errors that have occurred, which is about all you can ask from an injury call up. His call up was a bit of a mystery but he’s shown why he had the confidence of management and the coaching staff. The solid D play is needed, the two points are just gravy.

In net, Scott Clemmensen will make another start as Jose Theodore still out with his knee injury. Despite a rough outing on Saturday, thanks to some terrible defensive play from the five guys in front of him, Clemmensen has been more than capable in Theodore’s absence, including a win over these same Capitals last week. He’ll need another strong outing as Brian Foster will once again be his backup, who saw his first five minutes of NHL action Saturday against the Bolts.

On the offensive side of things, the Flashmob is showing signs of life that’s been missing for a few weeks. Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleschimann have combined for 10 points in their past four games, a great sign for a team that struggles to consistently put pucks in the net. If those two, along with Center Stephen Weiss can get back to the way they were playing around Thanksgiving, wrestling first place in the division is going to be difficult.

But the Panthers have been showing recently they are more than one line. The line of Sean Bergenheim-Maarcel Goc-Mikael Samuelsson have scored big for the Panthers over the past few games. They’ve combined for 9 points over the last three games, including Bergenheim’s game winning goal over Winnipeg on Friday. Secondary scoring has been a huge need all season for the Panthers all season long and it finally looks like some consistent help has arrived in the form of this line.

This is the last of a four game run against division opponents. A win and the Cats will have taken six out of a possible eight. I think if you asked any Florida fan if that was acceptable, they’d give you an enthusiastic “YES!” This is one you simply have to win if you want to be a playoff team.

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Tags: Alexander Ovechkin Boston Bruins Brian Foster Brooks Laich Flashmob Line Florida Panthers Kris Versteeg Marcel Goc Mikael Samuelsson Nicklas Backstrom Scott Clemmensen Sean Bergenheim Stephen Weiss Tampa Bay Lightning Tomas Fleischmann Tomas Vokoun Tyson Strachan Washington Capitals

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