Southeast Showdown in Sunrise
Wednesday, 02.01.2012 / 2:12 AM
Mike Vogel - WashingtonCaps.com Senior WriterFebruary 1 vs. Florida Panthers at BankAtlantic Center
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Washington Capitals (26-19-4)
Florida Panthers (22-15-11)
Washington concludes a two-game Florida journey on Wednesday in Sunrise when it takes on the Panthers at BankAtlantic center. The visit is the second of three for the Caps to South Florida this season. Wednesday’s game between the Caps and Cats is for the top perch in the NHL’s Southeast Division.
The Capitals started the trip with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Lightning in Tampa Bay on Tuesday night. The Caps scored the game’s first goal, fell into a 3-1 hole and then rallied to even the contest at 3-3. Washington earned a point in getting the game to overtime, and that point is the margin by which it leads the Panthers going into Wednesday’s game at Sunrise.
The line of Matt Hendricks
, Brooks Laich
and Troy Brouwer
was formed for the Jan. 22 game at Pittsburgh, and it was cobbled for the purposes of checking. In Tuesday night’s game, that trio accounted for two of Washington’s three goals and 13 of its 29 shots on goal.
Right from the game’s first shift, that unit was buzzing in the attack zone and it was the team’s most effective and consistent offensive trio throughout the contest.
Hendricks scored the game’s first goal and Brouwer scored the game-tying tally in the third.
“In the Boston game,” began Brouwer in speaking after Tuesday’s loss to the Lightning, “we didn’t have too many offensive chances. But tonight, we really wanted to be able to take the play to them. If we’re in their zone, we obviously can’t get scored on.
“We played good hockey tonight. We were solid in our [defensive] zone. We were moving pucks out quickly, not just throwing them out of the zone and chasing. We carried the pucks out and put them in. the big thing is we were able to recover the pucks when we were dumping them in.
“We created a lot of good chances tonight and I like where our line is at right now.”
It has been a dozen years since the Caps and the Panthers played a game on Feb. 1 or later that was meaningful for both clubs in terms of positioning for the top spot in the division. Way back in 2000 – the last time the Panthers reached the playoffs – Florida owned a 16-point bulge over the Capitals in the Southeast Division in mid-January. Washington got white hot thereafter, so white hot that it surpassed the Panthers for the Southeast lead by virtue of a 4-2 win over Florida on March 7, 2000.
The Caps ended up taking the Southeast crown over the Cats, 102-98 points. That 98-point season remains the franchise standard for the Cats’ 18 seasons in the NHL. The Panthers are still seeking the first division title of their history.
After a rugged 14-17-7-1 start in the season’s first 39 games, the Capitals blazed through the season’s second half. They never went consecutive games without earning at least a point in the standings and they won each of their final three meetings with Florida, the last of which was on March 7. Washington finished the season on a 30-7-5-1 spree.
Back to the reality of this season, the Capitals are a less than ordinary 19-19-4 since they opened the 2011-12 regular season slate with seven straight victories. Washington has won just six of its last 22 road games (6-13-3) after four straight seasons in which it won at last 20 road games.
While the Caps were taking on the Lightning in Tampa, Florida was resting up and awaiting Washington’s arrival in South Florida in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
“We just roll tonight into tomorrow,” said Laich after Tuesday’s loss in Tampa. “We’ll do some video on it [Wednesday] morning, but you leave this game here tonight. We have a big opponent [Wednesday], a big game. They’re sitting there resting, waiting for us to come in. But we’ve got to roll this effort into [Wednesday] night.”
The Panthers haven’t won more than two straight since the Capitals’ last visit back on Dec. 5. The Panthers’ 5-4 win – in a game they led 5-1 at one point – was the second of a modest three-game winning run at the time. That three-game winning streak was their second of the season and it matches their season best to date.
Florida wasn’t playing particularly well heading into the NHL’s All-Star break. The Panthers have won just seven of 21 games (7-7-7) since defeating the Capitals at BankAtlantic Center on Dec. 5. The Cats won just two games in the month of January, posting a 2-3-4 record in the first calendar month of 2012.
Fifteen of Florida’s first 48 games this season have required more than 60 minutes to settle. The Panthers have picked up 11 points in the process of losing games, the most of any team in the league. The Cats have a minus-11 goal differential on the season (119-130).
Those points in the overtime and shootout losses have enabled the Panthers to keep a steady stream of points coming in. Only once in the season’s first 48 games have the Panthers gone more than a game without collecting at least a point. Florida suffered consecutive shutout losses by identical 3-0 scores way back on Oct. 18 and 20 to Washington and Buffalo, respectively. That’s the only time all season the Cats have gone as many as two games without a point.
The power play was a severe weakness for the 2010-11 Panthers. The Cats scored just 35 power play goals in 82 games last season, and their 13.1% extra-man success rate was the worst in the NHL. This season, Florida ranks eighth in the NHL with a 19% power play success rate. With 34 power play goals in 48 games this season, the Cats are just one extra-man marker away from matching their total for all of last season.
Wednesday’s game against the Panthers is the final contest of Caps captain Alex Ovechkin
’s three-game suspension.