Caps, Cats Clash for Southeast Catbird's Seat
February 7 vs. Florida Panthers at Verizon Center
1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network
Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m., Two-Man Advantage at 5 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Florida Panthers (24-16-11)
Washington Capitals (27-21-4)
Washington hosts the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night at Verizon Center in the middle match of a three-game homestand. The Panthers hit town with 59 standings points to Washington’s 58, so a Capitals win in regulation time on Tuesday would topple the Cats from the top spot in the Southeast Division.
Already without top center Nicklas Backstrom
for an indefinite period of time, the Caps may also be without center Brooks Laich
for Tuesday’s divisional battle with the Panthers. Laich absorbed a check into the boards from Bruins blueliner Dennis Seidenburg in Sunday’s 4-1 loss to Boston.
Immediately after the check, Laich hobbled off the ice on one leg. He did not put any weight on his left leg. After an aborted twirl during a television timeout late in the second period, Laich left the Caps’ bench for the remainder of the game. He did not practice with his teammates on Monday and was slated for a Monday afternoon doctor’s examination.
“He’s day-to-day right now,” says Caps coach Dale Hunter of Laich. “He was walking on it, so he was fine. It’s day-to-day; it’s not major.”
Laich averages 19:13 per night in ice time this season, second among all Washington forwards. He is a staple on both special teams units and often is assigned checking duties against the opposition’s top line. Replacing Laich will require the work of multiple players.
“It will be more of a committee,” says Hunter of getting by if Laich is out for any appreciable length of time. “[They’ll] have to play the power play, kill penalties and play against the top lines of other teams. Definitely it’s an opportunity for other players to step up in all his different roles.”
With 843 career regular season games played to his credit, Caps center Jeff Halpern
is the team’s most experienced pivot. The rest of the centers on the Washington roster combined – Matt Hendricks
, Marcus Johansson
, Mathieu Perreault
, Keith Aucoin
and Jay Beagle
– have combined for fewer NHL games played (525) than Laich’s 527.
Of immediate concern are the Panthers. The Caps currently sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings, and they’ve been chasing the Panthers for the division lead for the better part of the last couple months.
“It’s huge,” says Caps defenseman Jeff Schultz
. [They’re a] division rival. It’s almost like a playoff game mentality coming in. I think they’ve scored the first goal in almost all the games that we’ve played. It’s come down to maybe that one goal in the end, so for us to get off to a good start will be big.”
The Panthers defeated the Capitals 4-2 last Wednesday in Florida. That loss dislodged the Caps from the division lead. The Capitals have lost three straight games to the Cats in Florida, but they’ve won three straight at home over the Panthers.
In Florida’s lone visit to Verizon thus far this season, Caps goaltender Tomas Vokoun
notched a shutout against his former Panthers teammates on Oct. 18.
In the Capitals’ 4-1 loss to Boston on Sunday, Washington outshot the opposition for the first time in a span of 14 games. The Caps had 36 shots on net to Boston’s 30. Sunday’s game also marked the first time since Dec. 13 that Washington fired more than 30 shots on net in a game. The Caps had gone 22 straight games without recording more than 30 shots on goal, managing a record of 12-7-3 in the process.
“I think we’ve done a better job at limiting the Grade A chances, guys sitting by themselves,” says Halpern. “But we haven’t cut back on the amount of time we spend in our own end. It beats you down a little bit and shifts that momentum.
“The easiest way to not play in your end is to force the play a little bit more in the other team’s end, and sustain a forecheck and a cycle. It’s all things that go into it and go into not just the scoreboard but what teams has more shots, more chances and more zone time.”
Florida is tied for the second-fewest regulation losses in the Eastern Conference with Boston and Philadelphia. But the Bruins have 33 wins and the Flyers 30 to Florida’s 24. The Panthers lead the league with 11 overtime or shootout losses.
Although the Panthers have won just eight of their last 23 games (8-8-7), they have gone consecutive games without picking up a point just once this season, and that was back on Oct. 18-20 in road losses at Washington and Buffalo, respectively.
Since taking the Caps down last Wednesday, Florida has won a 2-1 home ice decision over the Jets on Friday and suffered a 6-3 setback at the hands of the Lightning in Tampa Bay.
The Panthers haven’t won a road game in regulation in nearly two months, since a 2-0 win over the Bruins in Boston on Dec. 8. The Cats are 1-5-4 in 10 road games since, with their lone victory coming via the shootout route in Winnipeg on Jan. 21.
Panthers goaltender Scott Clemmensen has won two straight decisions over the Capitals, both coming at BankAtlantic Center. Lifetime, Clemmensen is 4-6-1 with a 3.68 GAA and an .868 save pct. against the Capitals.
Clemmensen made his NHL debut at Verizon Center (then known as MCI Center) on Oct. 6, 2001. In eight career appearances (seven starts) on F Street, he is 1-5 with a 3.73 GAA and an .864 save pct.
Ex-Caps goalie Jose Theodore has not faced Washington since leaving Washington at the conclusion of the 2009-10 season. Theodore has been bothered by a knee ailment recently, but is reported to be making the trip with the Panthers, who will head home after to take on the Kings on Thursday.