Feb. 17, 2012: Sunrise, FL, USA; Florida Panthers center Marcel Goc (57) and Washington Capitals defenseman Jeff Schultz (55) both fight during the third period at the BankAtlantic Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

First Place Finishers? Cats, Caps Fighting 'Til The End

The Florida Panthers control their own destiny… sort of. It’s no secret that in these final games of the season, how the Washington Capitals fare impacts the Cats just as much as their own play does. With the point from last night’s heartbreaking overtime loss, the Panthers’ lead over Washington is four points. Washington was able to make better use of their extra time last night, getting a crucial two points in a shootout win over Boston. Up 2-0, they looked like they had that one in the bag in regulation, but Boston rallied back with a pair of late third period goals to send the game into overtime.

The two teams have been duking it out for that top spot in the division virtually all year, with Winnipeg entering the conversation a bit mid-season. The Panthers have enjoyed first place in the Southeast for a total of nearly 120 days up until this point. When you look at the two teams side by side from a statistical standpoint, both have their strong suits, but Washington is certainly a little more top-heavy. 

We’ll start with the first place Panthers. At 37-24-16, their record reveals the most OT/SO losses in the NHL. While it’s good they’ve gotten 16 extra points from games they didn’t win, I hate to think what their points total could be had they managed to get the second in just half of those games. The battle with Washington wouldn’t even be a battle and Panthers fans would not have to spend the final week of the season stressed out beyond belief (speaking personally here).

With a goal last night, Tomas Fleischmann is up to 25 on the season and with 58 points, still leads the Panthers in scoring. Kris Versteeg is the only other Panther over the 20-goal mark at 22, and this is after missing 11 games. Brian Campbell, like Fleischmann, has played in all 77 games and has proven to be a machine in setting up offensive opportunities. The shining D-man is third on the roster in scoring with 51 points in 4 goals and a stellar 47 assists. Stephen Weiss should hit 20 goals by the end of the season with 19 currently to his name.

When you look outside the FlashMob Line and the All Star defenseman, the offense is pretty spread out. In addition to Weiss, the Panthers have five guys with goals in double figures: Jason Garrison (due mostly to his bomb from the point), Marcel Goc, Mikael Samuelsson, Sean Bergenheim and Shawn Matthias. However, as indicated in their abysmal goal differential (-20) and less than impressive average of 2.4 goals per game (ranking 26th in the league), offense doesn’t always come easy even though they have the weapons. The injury bug was a big deterrent in January and February, but even their healthy roster has struggled on some level to get pucks in the net.

The Panthers’ power play built a strong foundation early in the season and still ranks 7th best in the NHL at 18.8 percent. Their PK has not been quite as efficient, only killing an average of 79.6 percent of man-down situations (ranked 24th).

Washington is tied with the Sabres at 86 points, but Buffalo has a game in hand giving them the rights to the 8th seed right now. The Sabres have been agressive lately, and they helped their odds by winning a big game against the Caps on Tuesday in 5-1 fashion. The Caps are 39-31-8, so when you look at the standings in the most literal perspective, they have actually won more games and lost fewer than the Panthers.

Their goal differential is nothing to brag about at -12, but they are middle of the pack in goals per game while averaging 2.6. Their power play percentage of 17.2 is also statistically average, ranked 14th in the league, and their PK has seen its struggles at 81.1 percent.

Even in a “slow” year for the Russian superstar, Alex Ovechkin leads the team in scoring with 63 points (36 goals, 27 assists), though he’s a -7 on the ice. Other than their obvious go-to guy, the Caps have no other players over the 20-goal mark. Alexander Semin and Jason Chimera both sit at 19 goals on the season and Troy Brouwer chimes in with 18 of his own. Like the Panthers, they also have a defenseman with his goal total in double figures. In fact, you might have heard of him. Former Panther Dennis Wideman has scored 11 goals and with 35 assists, is the Caps’ third leading scoring.

Washington leads the season series 3-2, but the Panthers still have the opportunity to even the score on the road next week. Both teams have the goods offensively, so it’s no surprise that the division race (at least between these two) has been such a heated affair all season. There is still a chance that both teams get in, but for the sake of higher seeding and to assure the end of the longest playoff drought in NHL history, the Panthers need to hang on for dear life. After boasting first place for the vast majority of the regular season, it would devestate this fanbase to watch them fall off in the final week. The view from the top is nice, and I want to see it until the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Hopefully longer.

Thanks for reading! We welcome any comments.

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