Pregame #81: Washington Capitals vs. Florida Panthers

Washington Capitals (40-32-8) vs. Florida Panthers (37-25-18)
Location: Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 PM
TV: Comcast SportsNet (HD) (Game On!), NHL Network
Radio: 1500AM, 820 AM, and XM
Previous Games:
Oct 18, 2011 FLA@WSH, 3-0 W
Dec 5, 2011 WSH@FLA, 4-5 L
Feb 1, 2012 WSH@FLA, 2-4 L
Feb 7, 2012 FLA@WSH, 4-0 W
Feb 17, 2012 WSH@FLA, 2-1 W
Familiar Faces of Former Capitals: G Jose Theodore (104 GP, 2008-10), RW Matt Bradley (427 GP, 2005-11), LW Tomas Fleischmann (283 GP, 2005-10), LW Marco Sturm (18 GP, 2010)
Former Panthers: Dennis Wideman (61 GP, 2010-11), Tomas Vokoun (244 GP, 2007-11)
Opposing Viewpoints:
Litter Box Cats

How many former Caps can you spot? Read on! 

Photo from

For the past several games, the Washington Capitals have been fighting for their playoff lives, but you wouldn’t always know it by watching them.  With two games to go, they have repeatedly failed to clinch a playoff berth, and sit tied with the 9th-place Buffalo Sabres with 88 points.  The Capitals occasionally show the fight of a team whose backs are against the wall, but it seems like once they get a comfortable lead, they stop forechecking and “protect” it. If the other team gets an early lead, the Caps’ fight goes right out the door and they’ll sit and watch like fans in the cheap seats as their goalie gets burned repeatedly.   Fortunately, their most important player for repeatable and long-term success has returned to the lineup.  Nicklas Backstrom has been skating on the first line and the powerplay over the last two games, but his impact has so far been minimal as he works himself back into shape.  There have obviously been large portions of the team that have been waiting for something to happen instead of making it happen themselves.  We can only hope they don’t wait too long. 

Speaking of backing into the playoffs, the Florida Panthers have yet to claim the Southeast Division title that has been sitting out like a half-eaten Tastykake on a preschool cafeteria floor, just waiting for someone to scoop it up.  The Panthers have been in control of the division lead for months now, but with only 0 wins in their past 4 games and just 1 win in their past 8, they are hardly making life easy on themselves.  If the Caps win this game they can still clinch the division with a win and a Florida loss on Saturday.  The Panthers are as healthy as they’ve been all season, so they have no excuses for this mediocrity.  The Caps can only hope the trend continues, though, and it shows no signs of stopping any time soon. 

Injury Report: Capitals’ G Tomas Vokoun (groin) D John Erskine (lower body), and RW Joel Ward (foot) are out.
-For the Panthers, RW Matt Bradley (concussion) and RW Jack Skille (shoulder) are out.

Three Things To Watch For:

Flash Fire Warning:  Former Capitals winger Tomas Fleischmann is earning the big contract he signed this summer.  He is leading the Florida Panthers with 27 goals and 61 points, all at half the price of Caps’ leading scorer Alex Ovechkin (63 points).  He has been hot lately, too, with 7 goals and 14 points in his last 14 games.  Skating on a line with Stephen Weiss (56 points) and Kris Versteeg (53 points) much of the year, the Flying Dutchmen have been terrorizing opponents with their speed and puckhandling ability, leading to extended stays in their opponents zone.  Marking the slippery Fleischmann will be no easy task for Caps defenders, as Weiss is capable of setting up with his excellent passing skills and Fleischmann knows his old teammates well enough to find holes in the defensive coverage. 

Second Fiddle Harmony:  The Washington Capitals’ second line of Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault, and Alexander Semin has been kept together for an extended period this season, and for good reason.  They meshed well immediately and have been quietly effective in all three zones.  Young, diminutive Quebecois center Mathieu Perreault has been holding his own in the faceoff circle lately and is over 50% for the season.  That added skill has aided the already quick puck-handler maintain possession in the offensive zone and has helped him double his previous career highs with 15 goals and 29 points.  Edmonton’s own Jason Chimera’s speed and forechecking are the perfect foil for the deliberate artist on the other wing, Siberian Alexander Semin.  Both wingers have scored 20 goals this season, and while that’s a career high for Chimera and a non-rookie season career low for Semin, it’s the only line the Caps have with two 20-goal scorers on it.  In 36 games since January 18, the three players have combined for 27 goals, 67 points, and a +17 rating, more than adequate secondary scoring for a playoff-bound team.  Let’s hope the odd trio can keep it up. 

Un-Special Teams: Even though the Capitals and Panthers should end up in the postseason, there is nothing special about their special teams this year.  The division leading Florida Panthers rank 25th in the NHL with a dismal 79.6% penalty kill rate.  If the Capitals had a better than average powerplay (18th at 16.7%), it might even be something they could pounce on tonight, but even as bad as that number looks, it has been even worse since Backstrom’s concussion.  Considering the Capitals have drawn the 4th fewest powerplays and the Panthers have faced the 4th fewest, there is a very good chance the Capitals might not even get a chance on the powerplay at all, and it wouldn’t be the first time that happened in a match-up between these teams this season.  Even if the Caps got a powerplay, the Capitals have allowed the 4th most shorthanded goals (10), but the toothless Panthers penalty kill has only scored 4.  On the other hand, the Capitals penalty kill is just above the bottom third of the league at a 20th place 81.3%, and they are 28th with only 3 shorthanded goals for, while the Panthers sit 10th in powerplay effectiveness at 18.4%.  If the Capitals let Panthers defenseman Jason Garrison unleash his monster slap shot, they will be looking down the barrel of an “elephant gun,” in the words of Joe Beninati, and they can ill afford to allow any extra goals to their opponents these days.  In short, this game could very well be decided by the Panthers powerplay, since there is no other special teams group special enough to make a difference. 

Pregame #81: Washington Capitals vs. Florida Panthers

Washington Capitals (47-22-11) vs. Florida Panthers (29-38-12)
Location: Verizon Center
7:00 PM
TV: Comcast SportsNet Plus (HD) (Game On!), (CSN+ Channel Finder), News Channel 8
Radio:  1500AM, 820 AM, and XM
Team Promotion:  Spring Puck Surprise
Previous Games:
Dec 9, 2010 FLA@WSH, 0-3 L
Jan 8, 2011 FLA@WSH, 3-2 W
Jan 11, 2011 WSH@FLA, 3-4 OTL
Mar 6, 2011 WSH@FLA, 3-2 W
Games Remaining:
Apr 9, 2011 WSH@FLA, 7:00 PM
Know The Enemy:  Litter Box Cats

Read on to see how we solve the Panthers!
The Pink Panther

The Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals are coming off a shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs last night that vaulted them over the Philadelphia Flyers in the standings.  If the Caps can win again tonight, they can be almost assured of home-ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.  Coach Bruce Boudreau has been tinkering with the lineup lately by choice or by necessity, and expect that tinkering to continue:  the Caps lineup could feature four players who didn’t play last night.  None of it has seemed to matter much as the Caps are 14-2-1 since February 26. 

Reduced to playing for pride, the Florida Panthers have lost 8 straight games and fell behind the Ottawa Senators for 15th place in the East last night.  Besides a mass exodus of experienced players at the trade deadline, the Panthers are also dealing with a host of injuries, meaning the Caps will see a young opposing lineup playing for jobs next year.  The Caps should be able to take advantage of backup goalie Scott Clemmensen and the inevitable rookie mistakes of his defense.  If the Caps get the lead, they’ll have a tough time clamping down.  They will need to be vigilant as they are facing unfamiliar yet talented forwards trying to make a name for themselves. 

Injury Report:  Capitals’ defensemen Mike Green (head), Dennis Wideman (leg hematoma), and Tom Poti (groin) are out, but Coach Boudreau indicated Green could return to game action this weekend.  D Tyler Sloan (head) and RW Alex Semin (undisclosed) missed the Caps’ last game and are day-to-day. 
-The Panthers expect to be without G Tomas Vokoun (back spasms), C Stephen Weiss (groin), RW Rostislav Olesz (knee), C Scott Timmins (concussion),and RW Bryon Bitz (hernia).  C Shawn Matthias (ankle) and D Alexander Sulzer (groin/hip) are questionable. 

Three Things To Watch For:

Arnott Factor:  Caps center Jason Arnott has provided timely offense lately and he has been big against the Panthers this season.  With 3 goals in his last 5 games overall and 3 goals in 5 games against the Panthers this season, it’s a good bet the veteran center will run roughshod over the inexperienced Panthers tonight.  Look for Arnott to be a big factor on the powerplay and in the enemy crease as the Caps look to sew up the top spot in the East. 

What Goalie Conundrum?:  As the Caps have come down the home stretch into the playoffs, Michal Neuvirth has been shouldering the load and coming up with huge saves in clutch situations.  The same cannot be said for Semyon Varlamov, who has been rusty in his return from injury.  Look for Varly to get one more start before the playoffs, but don’t expect him to take the reins in the playoffs, even if he has the experience advantage over Neuvi.  Varly needs to tighten up his game to make an impression on the coaching staff, as he has been letting in questionable goals lately. 

Waterbug Season:  Shifty Russian winger Sergei Samsonov has been one of the few bright spots for the Panthers since the trade deadline.  The 1998 Rookie of the Year had been struggling this season in Carolina (.45 points per game), but with 12 points in 15 games since arriving in Sunrise (.71 PPG), the change in scenery seems to be doing him some good.  He has also been one of the few dangerous Panthers lately:  he scored the Cats’ last game-winning goal on St. Patrick’s Day and he leads the Cats with 3 points over the last 5 games (in which they have 8 total goals, an average of 1.6 goals per game).