February 7, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; Florida Panthers right wing Kris Versteeg (32) skates with the puck as Washington Capitals center Jeff Halpern (15) chases in the first period at Verizon Center. The Capitals won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE

Game Day Preview: Capitals vs. Panthers. Not Afraid

 WASHINGTON CAPITALS: 28-23-5 (61 PTS.) vs. FLORIDA PANTHERS: 27-18-11 (65 PTS).

 OPPOSITION SITE:  CAPITALS OUTSIDER

 TSN GAMEDAY

GAME DAY SONG: EMINEM

The Florida Panthers enter tonight’s Southeast division matchup against the Washington Capitals following a 6-2 spanking by the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night.  A game that the Panthers will hopefully put behind them and focus on continuing the Washington Capitals slide, as the Caps look to avoid their fourth loss in a row.  It seems that all of these games lately have been “must win”, and if the Florida Panthers want to put some additional distance between themselves and their division rival, then tonight is a must win.  A victory in regulation by Florida would extend their lead over the Caps to six points, and would keep Washington out of the top eight in the conference.

While Wednesday night’s defeat snapped a three game winning streak, it was the first of four games at home, and there’s no reason that another one can’t start tonight.  Tomas Fleischmann is showing signs of resurgence again as he has nine points in his past nine games, and five in his past four.  Sean Bergenheim has seven points in his last eight games, including five goals which brings his total to 12 on the year so far.  Bergenheim who’s been playing on a line with Mikael Samuelsson and Marcel Goc has been the catalyst for providing secondary scoring, thus taking some of the pressure off the FlashMob Line.

Speaking of the top line, the next goal that Kris Versteeg scores will be his career high.  The Panthers leading scorer currently has 22 goals and 26 assists to lead the Panthers in points with 48.  30 goals is definitely on the radar for the spunky forward.  He also has 16 power play points to lead the team, which ties his personal best with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2008-2009.

“I’ve always expected to be a player that can play good minutes and play in certain situations,” Versteeg said. “I’ve been given the opportunity here, where in the past you haven’t been given it. It’s been fun this year, you’ve been getting a lot of trust put into you by the coach, so that helps.”

This is the third meeting between these two teams since the All-Star break, with the Panthers winning 4-2 at home on February 1st, and Washington winning in D.C. 4-0.  However that was Washington’s last victory as they now find themselves four points behind Florida having gone 0-2-1 in that time.  The tailspin has put Washington in the 9th spot in the conference, three points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the eighth and final playoff position.  They begin a very important four game road trip with the first three games against Eastern Conference opponents.

“This road trip is very important for us,” center Marcus Johansson said. “We have to win more games than we are. It’s getting tight now. We have to have a real good finish from here on until the end of the regular season. Every game is going to be very important, even more against a team that we’re really battling with for first place.”

The Capitals will be looking to Alexander Ovechkin to turn things around as Alex had two goals in the last game at Washington in the 4-0 victory.  Ovechkin is having a “down” year with 23 goals and 44 points, which puts him well behind his normal pace. Even if he continues at his current pace he’ll only have 65 points which will be a career low for him.  His worst season was last year when he had 85.  In 20 road games against the Panthers Ovechkin has 13 goals and 11 assists, but has been held scoreless in the last two meetings at the Bank Atlantic Center.  While Ovechkin is the center of attention on the ice for Washington, stories like this off the ice could be a distraction.

You can tell that it’s been a frustrating season all around for a team that at the beginning of the year was projected to be a Stanley Cup Finalist.  Making only a few subtle changes with Ex-Panther goaltender Tomas Vokoun being the biggest addition, the team seems to have gone through more than it’s share of ups and downs.  The stress of a season that has seen both winning and losing streaks combined with a head coaching change, took a new spin yesterday as Ovechkin and former Panther defenceman Dennis Wideman had a incident in practice yesterday.  There are times when a flareup like that can ignite a team, allowing players to blow off frustration and vent about everything that’s troublesome.  On the otherhand it could lead to more conflict amongst the troops, and open some wounds that don’t need salt poured on them.

Washington clearly has to decide where they are headed going into the stretch drive.  With the trade deadline coming, they’ll need to figure out if they are buyers and look to improve their roster, or if they are sellers, and plan for next season.  The pressure is also on GM George McPhee to win, so unless this three game losing streak turns into a five or six gamer, it’s probable that the Capitals will look to add something to their roster.

Tomas Vokoun and Jose Theodore take the mound get the assignments in goal tonight for their respective teams.  Both will be facing each other for the first time this season.

A loss tonight will certainly put a question mark in McPhee’s mind about what to do the next couple weeks.  That’s not a very comfortable place to be for a team that was expected to be a championship contender early in the season.  The Capitals have shown that they are a beatable team on any night.  They’re also are a team that can steamroll you when things are clicking for them.  That kind of inconsistency though isn’t a good place to find yourself at this time of the season for a team that had lofty expectations.

The coaching change had it’s initial effect early on as it most often does, but now that things have settled in, it appears that the real Washington Capitals are showing their colors.  A Florida Panther victory tonight will have both teams seeing red…..and for different reasons!

 Nerdy Notes/Numbers:

* John Madden will be out of the lineup for two weeks with an undisclosed lower body injury.  Krys Barch will be in the lineup tonight.

* The Panthers are undefeated at home against the Capitals this season (2-0-0).

* The Panthers have been in first place for a total of 79 days this season.

* Brian Campbell ranks second among NHL defenceman with 36 assists.

* The Panthers have allowed the first goal within six minutes of a game in five of it’s past six starts.

* Tomas Vokoun has two shutouts this season against the Panthers. He also had one against Washington April 9th 2011.  His last game as a Florida Panther.

* Washington leads the series all time 50-36-9-7.

* Vokoun is the only goaltender to have won 22 or more games each season since the 2002-2003 season.

* Alex Ovechkin is one of five active players to have scored 20 or more goals in their first seven seasons. Jaromir Jagr, Tomas Vanek, Teemu Selanne and Ilya Kovalchuk are the others.

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Tags: Alexander Ovechkin Is A Rock Star Eminem Flashmob Line Florida Panthers Jose Theodore Kris Versteeg Not Afraid Sean Bergenheim Tomas Vokoun Washington Capitals

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