With a pretty solid first half of the season, the Florida Panthers set themselves up to compete for the Southeast Division lead through 41 games. However, there's still plenty of hockey left, and the Cats know just how important divisional games are going to be. The Panthers showed everyone just how serious they are on Tuesday night as they handled the Washington Capitals in convincing fashion with a 4-2 home win, vaulting themselves back atop the division and back into third in the Eastern Conference. Washington, coming off an overtime loss to Tampa Bay the night before, looked tired and was outworked for most of the game by the Panthers, who outshot the opposition 38-28. This was a great team effort by Florida and hopefully a sign of things to come, as the schedule in the second half of the season is much more friendly to Florida and is rife with divisional matchups, which are all must-wins if the Panthers hope to dance in the postseason.
Both teams came out with some good energy and were skating hard to loose pucks. Washington's top line had a great early chance as Alex Semin got a step on the defense and nearly scored on the backhand, but Clemmensen was up to the task. The Panthers countered with some good pressure themselves, throwing a bunch of shots at Michal Neuvirth but not scoring. Florida was throwing nearly everything on net they could, testing Neuvirth as often as possible. Florida had the better chances in the period, outshooting Washington 15-11 in the period. Florida did a pretty good job of blocking a lot of the Washington shots as well, helping out Clemmensen. Florida kept assaulting the Washington net and eventually drew the first penalty of the evening as Jason Chimera ends up in the box for high sticking. Despite some great puck possession and tons of point shots by Jason Garrison, the Panthers couldn't put one in the back of the net and the Caps killed off the penalty. Garrison would've had five goals on that flurry if he had hit the net with more than one of them. Washington bounced back with some time in the Florida zone and Jeff Halpern nearly scored off a tip, but the Panthers came right back at the Caps, nearly scoring a few times. Neuvirth was absolutely solid through the entire period though and the teams would go into the intermission scoreless.
Florida got a bit lucky early in the second as Mikael Samuelsson fired a puck into the Washington zone and caught Neuvirth sleeping, scoring the first of the night and his fourth of the season. The Caps woke up a bit after that and started to pressure Florida a bit but the Panthers kept working hard and controlled the puck for most of the first ten minutes. The Caps would take another penalty as former Cat Dennis Wideman flipped the puck out of play, earning a delay of game penalty. Florida again had some great opportunities but were unable to score as Washington did a great job blocking shots and keeping traffic clear in front of Neuvirth. The Caps would get their first powerplay with around ten minutes to go, as Keaton Ellerby would get caught holding, but the Panthers Sean Bergenheim would draw a high sticking call during a shorthanded break, creating a 4-on-4 situation. Garrison would again have several great chances but couldn't hit the net or would have his shots blocked. The Caps would even it up at 1-1 as Brooks Laich would shake Erik Gudbranson and beat Clemmensen high glove side off a beautiful wrister. The Panthers responded with some good shifts from the third and fourth lines, testing Neuvirth again and outworking Washington for whole shifts at a time. Florida would finish the period with a 24-18 shot advantage and looked to be in control of their fate in the third provided they kept up the hard work.
The Panthers started out the period the same way they played the first two: owning the puck and firing shots at Neuvirth whenever possible. The Cats got an early break in the period as Matt Hendricks gets called for goaltender interference during a rush towards the Panther net, and the Panthers would make the Caps pay as Samuelsson would score his second of the night, beating Neuvirth with a wrister from the point. Neuvirth can't be too happy as both Sammy goals were pretty bad; I'm sure Dale Hunter was in his ear after the game for those two. The Panthers ended up taking the same penalty not long after they scored as Krys Barch gets called, but the Cats penalty kill work did a great job and took care of the penalty. The Caps had some decent shifts following the powerplay but Clemmensen would not be beaten, aggressively coming out of his net to challenge shooters. The Panthers would appear to score their third goal of the game as Stephen Weiss had the puck bounce off his shoulder and past Neuvirth, but the goal was waived off. However, the officials would have a conference and review the goal, and the call would be reversed, giving Weiss the goal and the Panthers a 3-1 lead halfway through the period. After the goal, the Caps started to really pressure Florida and the Panthers seemed like they would break, but Clemmensen again came up huge and the Panthers calmed back down and didn't sit back. The Cats got into some trouble late, not clearing the zone and instead trying to throw the puck up the middle for a pass, thereby turning the puck over to John Carlson who blasted it past Clemmensen to bring the Caps within one. Washington would puil Neuvirth with about one minute left, and the Panthers would take advantage as Shawn Matthias would make a great steal and pop in an empty netter to get a 4-2 lead. Despite the Caps taking a late timeout to try and strategize, the Panthers would hang on and regain the top spot in the Southeast with a gutsy win over the Caps.
- In the absence of leading scorer Kris Versteeg, Weiss and Fleischmann stepped up to provide some offensive production. Weiss had a great rush up the ice to lead to the second Panther goal, pushing two Caps further into their own zone and freeing up space for Flash and Brian Campbell to set up Sammy's second of the night. Fleischmann also set up Weiss' goal with a great pass down low to Tomas Kopecky. Hopefully these guys can get going again and rejoin Versteeg, giving the Panthers that top line performance that drove them to a great first-half record.
- Clemmensen made some really big saves during the game when the Panthers let their foot off the gas. Florida is really going to need both him and Jose Theodore to come up big in the last 33 games, and Clemmensen deserves major props for a great effort tonight.
- Marco Sturm is back for the Panthers, and he looks like he missed being on the ice. He had a great spark to his game and was all over the ice when he was out there. His ice time was not what it was before his injury, but it's likely that Kevin Dineen is slowly working him back into the ice time he had before. It's good to see him back and the Panthers will definitely be able to use his services down the stretch.
- Mike Weaver is like the Marty St. Louis of defenseman. He's so smart and always in such good position that he gives himself the best chance to break up plays and get in the way. He's very enjoyable to watch. Considering the amount defensive zone starts and the quality of opponents he matches up with every night, it's amazing just how well he has played this year.
- Tyson Strachan had a pretty good game. He got a gift assist on the first Panther goal, but he had a lot of shots and played a physical game in his own zone. He's admirably filling in for the Cats so far and is holding his own out there.
- The Panthers have been allowing tons of shots against lately, and you can be sure that's something the coaching staff wants to address. One great way to address it? Take lots of shots yourself. The Panthers threw a ton of frozen rubber at the Capitals net in the game, helping them maintain puck possession and generating more scoring chances than they've had in awhile. Let's hope that continues.
- Dmitry Orlov is a good-looking young defenseman for the Capitals. He didn't have great numbers in this game, but he looks a little bit like Kulikov in his rookie year and definitely has some skills. As he matures he could be a good offensive producer from the blueline for the Caps.
- Gudbranson is getting a lot more ice time now that both Ed Jovanovski and Dmitry Kulikov are out of the lineup for awhile. He got beat pretty badly on the Laich goal but otherwise played a good game. He still needs to be more physical on a regular basis. His size gives him a big advantage and he's gotta start making opposing forwards pay more often. He did have a couple good hits in this game though, so it seems he's getting the message.
- I think Garrison's arms are tired from taking fifty-some shots. Had he hit the net with half of his shots tonight, the Cats would've won 10-2. Better luck next game Gary. Just keep firing them.
- Marcel Goc went to the locker room in the third after blocking a shot, but came back shortly after. Hopefully he's alright, as the Panthers can't really afford to lose him again this season.
- Shawn Matthias and Mike Santorelli were skating very hard the whole game. Both of them flew over the ice nearly every shift. I'm liking them paired up on a line. Great to see Matty get the empty netter as he deserved it after his effort in the game.
- Tonight's tasty beverage is a bottle of this year's Bell's Hopslam Ale, probably my favorite beer of all-time.