April 5 vs. Florida Panthers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Two-Man Advantage at 3:00 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 3:00 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com.
Florida Panthers (37-25-18)
Washington Capitals (40-32-8)
After 80 games of the 2011-12 NHL regular season, a Southeast Division titlist has yet to be determined. The final two games of the regular season will settle the score in the Southeast, starting with the Capitals’ final home game of the campaign on Thursday night against Florida.
The Panthers need just one point in their final two games to clinch the first division title of their franchise history.
Washington’s chances of winning the Southeast are on the slim side. The Caps need to win Thursday’s game over the Panthers in regulation, and then win on Saturday against the Rangers in New York in the season finale. They also need they Carolina Hurricanes to defeat Florida in regulation in the Panthers’ season finale on Saturday.
The Capitals don’t have to claim a fifth straight Southeast Division crown in order to make the dance; they can nail down no worse than the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference simply by winning each of their last two games, regardless of what any other team does. The Caps are currently tied with the Buffalo Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but the Caps hold the tie-breaker (wins minus shootout wins).
“Even with the ups and downs and all that,” begins Caps right wing Mike Knuble, “and the inconsistency we’ve had here, with two games to go we’re still in control. All we’ve got to do is win.”
It looked like the Caps might get some help from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night when the Leafs nursed a two-goal lead into the latter stages of regulation time against the Sabres. But Buffalo pulled two points out of the fire to draw even with the Caps in the standings.
“We actually counted on Buffalo [winning],” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. “We’ve just got to focus on what we’re doing. We’ve got to win these last two games and we’ve got to play our best hockey.”
Washington could clinch a berth as early as Thursday if it defeats Florida and the Buffalo Sabres suffer a regulation loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia.
A quick look at the Southeast Division standings reveals that only one Eastern Conference team – the last-place Montreal Canadiens – has fewer wins in its last 10 games than Florida and Washington. The Habs are 2-3-5 in their last 10 while Florida is 3-2-5 and Washington is 4-4-2.
The Capitals have squandered more than their share of points and leads in the last several weeks, and had they picked up a pair here or there, they might have already clinched a playoff berth by now.
“We’d all love to be on an incredible roll of something like 10-2 and primed going into the playoffs,” says Knuble. “But really, it’s been what it’s been all year. You hope you find a way to hit a peak and play well into the playoffs, but you can’t get too far ahead of yourselves, either.
“That’s been a thing, too. Don’t look too far ahead here. You’re just in limbo until Saturday, and then you’ll probably have a whole new frame of mind again. That’s just getting to Saturday and putting yourself in a position to move on from Saturday.”
Not surprisingly, the Capitals will turn to Michal Neuvirth in the nets for Thursday’s game. Neuvirth won 27 games and a first-round playoff series for Washington last season, and he is 13-13-5 with a 2.86 GAA and a .901 save pct. in 2011-12.
“We’re just focusing on [Thursday’s] game and we need two points,” says Neuvirth. “We will do whatever it takes to get the two points.”
Lifetime against the Panthers, Neuvirth is 2-3-1 with a 3.07 GAA and a .905 save pct. in eight appearances (seven starts). He is 0-2 with a 4.07 GAA and an .881 save pct. against the Panthers this season; injured netminder Tomas Vokoun went 3-0 against his former Florida employers in 2011-12, winning two of those games via the shutout route.
In his last four games (two starts), Neuvirth is 2-1 with a 2.60 GAA and a .911 save pct.
Special teams haven’t been much of a factor in Washington’s recent games. The Caps are 1-for-19 (5.3%) with the extra man in their last seven games, and they’ve allowed just two power play goals in 24 shorthanded situations (91.7% kill rate) in their last 10 games.
“We’ve just got to go out and play our game,” says Caps coach Dale Hunter. “We had a good practice, a good speed practice and hopefully it leads to [Thursday]. They’re ready to go.”
The Panthers are guaranteed to end the season with fewer total wins than Washington no matter what happens, but the Panthers have picked up a league-high 18 points via losing games in overtime or the shootout. The Cats have played 17 shootout games, second only to the Minnesota Wild (19) among all NHL teams.
Twenty-five of Florida’s 80 games (31.3%) have required more than 60 minutes to settle this season. The Panthers are 7-18 in those overtime and shootout games; they’re 6-11 in the shootout and 1-7 in overtime. The Cats are coming to town on the heels of a 5-4 overtime loss on home ice to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. Had the Panthers won that game, they’d already be sporting the Southeast Division crown.
The Cats have won just one of their last eight games (1-2-5), but they’ve earned points in six of those eight contests. The Panthers’ last regulation win came on March 20 at Philadelphia.
Florida has just two regulation losses in its last 13 games (6-2-5) and the Cats are 6-4-3 in their last 13 road games. Florida has suffered just two regulation losses in the 38 games in which it has scored the first goal (24-2-12), but one of those losses came against Washington in the last meeting between the two teams. The Caps skated off with a 2-1 win in Florida on Feb. 17 in that game.
Washington will need to shutdown the Panthers’ top offensive trio of ex-Cap Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg on Thursday. That threesome has accounted for more than a third (36.1%) of Florida’s offense this season.
Fleischmann has seven goals and 14 points in his last 14 games. With 61 points (27 goals, 34 assists) on the season, Fleischmann leads the Panthers in scoring and has just two fewer points than former teammate Alex Ovechkin.
Will Panthers goaltender Jose Theodore get the start against his former Washington teammates on Thursday? It is likely. Theodore has struggled of late. He is winless in his last six starts (0-2-4) with a 2.75 GAA and a .906 save pct. during that stretch. Theodore has allowed three or more goals in each of his last three games and four of his last six. His last victory was a 3-2 shootout triumph over the Sabres on March 17.
Scott Clemmensen is Florida’s other netminding option. Clemmensen has started just three of the Panthers’ last 15 games, but he is 2-0-1 with a 1.26 GAA and a .959 save pct. during that stretch. Lifetime against the Capitals, Clemmensen is 4-7-1 with a 3.71 GAA and an .866 save pct.
While the Panthers’ power play hasn’t been as impotent as the Capitals’ of late, the Cats have connected on just three of their last 30 extra-man opportunities (10%).
Notes: The Caps are without a regulation loss (8-0-3) in 11 previous home games against Southeast Division foes this season … The Panthers were shutout in each of their two previous visits to Verizon Center this season. Ex-Panther Tomas Vokoun was in net for both of those contests for the Capitals, but he is currently sidelined with a groin injury and is not available for Thursday’s game.
Stick tap to Carter Myers for some of the statistical data contained within.