April 6 vs. Florida Panthers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet, NC8 Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Capitals Report/Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com
Florida Panthers (29-38-12)
Washington Capitals (47-22-11)
Washington hosts the Florida Panthers on Wednesday at Verizon Center in the last regular season home game of the 2010-11 campaign. The contest is also the back end of a set of back-to-back tilts and the front half of a season-ending home and home pair with the Panthers.
The Capitals claimed a 3-2 shootout win over the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Tuesday to wrap up their fourth consecutive Southeast Division title. Washington also vaulted into sole possession of the top perch in the Eastern Conference standings, two notches ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers. Both the Caps and Flyers have two games remaining.
“It was huge for us,” said Caps captain Alex Ovechkin after Tuesday’s win in Toronto. “Right now we finished our division. We want to be first everywhere.”
Michal Neuvirth earned his 27th win of the season (27-11-4) against the Maple Leafs. Semyon Varlamov figures to get the net for Wednesday’s clash with the Cats at Verizon Center. Expect Neuvirth to get one final pre-playoff tune-up in Saturday’s regular season finale against the Panthers in Florida.
Neuvirth faced sporadic pressure against Toronto; he saw only 21 shots on the night as his teammates forechecked hard and spend a good deal of the game at the opposite end of the ice where they poured 41 shots on Maple Leafs rookie goalkeeper James Reimer.
“It’s pretty tough,” admits Neuvirth of those nights when the shots come in trickles rather than streams. “I just stay focused. That’s why I’m a goalie. I’ve got to handle the pressure and I’ve got to handle the focus. You’ve got to be into it the whole game. That’s what I was trying to do tonight and it worked out.”
If – as expected – the Caps close out the season with Varlamov starting on Wednesday and Neuvirth on Saturday, Neuvirth will make his final start of the season with three or more days rest and his first start of the playoffs on three or more days rest. He has been at his best this season in shorter rest situations.
Neuvirth has posted a 2.51 GAA and a .910 save pct. in seven appearances when working on zero days rest. He has a 2.23 GAA and a .926 save pct. in 16 games on one day’s rest, the usual amount of rest in most games during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Neuvirth has a 2.36 GAA and a .921 save pct. in his seven starts with two days rest. He has a 2.65 GAA and a .903 save pct. in 16 games with three or more days rest.
“I don’t need rest,” declares Neuvirth, and the numbers back him up. “I want to play and I can’t wait for the playoffs.”
He’s not alone. The Caps can clinch the top spot in the Eastern Conference by picking up three or more of the four available points remaining on the table in the two tilts against Florida. Washington has waited for a year to get back to the Stanley Cup playoffs, and they’re now just a week away from doing exactly that.
If they can finish with a flourish against Florida, they’ll head into the 2011 postseason as the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference for a second straight season.
“It’s time right now to be ready for the playoffs,” says Ovechkin. “The best time in your hockey career is coming – the playoffs. You get excited. I think the whole team is getting excited; the fans and the organization, so it’s nice.”
While Washington makes its bid for a second straight first-place finish in the Eastern Conference standings, Florida is playing out the string of another disappointing season. The Panthers have missed the playoffs for the 10th straight season, an NHL record. With 29 wins on the season, the Panthers appear likely to finish with their lowest win total since before the lockout. The Cats concluded the 2003-04 season with just 28 victories.
Florida is in the midst of an eight-game skid (0-5-3), its longest losing run since the 2005-06 season. The Cats have scored just 11 goals in those eight losses.
The Panthers have not won consecutive contests since the middle of January when they won three in a row. Since then, the Cats have won just eight of 36 games (8-18-10) to tumble all the way to the basement of the Eastern Conference standings.
Florida goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who gains unrestricted free agent status on July 1, has been sidelined with a back ailment. Back-up goaltender Scott Clemmensen has started each of the Panthers’ last three games. Vokoun may end up missing the Panthers’ remaining three games of the season.
Vokoun turns 35 on July 2. He has spent the last four seasons in Florida and virtually all of his NHL career in Nashville and Florida. As a result, he has appeared in just two Stanley Cup playoff series – and none since 2006-07 – during his 13-year NHL career.
Clemmensen has started three straight games; he has not started as many as four consecutive contests all season. A Boston College product, Clemmensen made his NHL debut at Verizon Center on opening night of the 2001-02 season in relief of Martin Brodeur.
Clemmensen is 2-5-1 lifetime with a 3.79 GAA and an .864 save pct. in 11 games (nine starts) against the Capitals.
Florida is also without center Stephen Weiss, who is currently sidelined with a groin injury. He may or may not play again this season. With 49 points (21 goals, 28 assists) on the season, Weiss is Florida’s leading scorer. No other Panther has as many as 40 points this season. Weiss has averaged 20:07 per night in ice time this season, tops among all Florida forwards and 23rd among all forwards in the NHL.