A look into the past indicates that the Florida Panthers’ current pace should be unsustainable.
After the Washington Capitals’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Tuesday, Florida is in second place in the Southeast Division. The Panthers’ 22 wins heading into the All-Star Break were the same amount they had last season at the same time, but they were in fifth place in the Southeast Division as opposed to second. Fifth place is where they stayed as the Panthers only earned eight wins in their last 33 games.
Florida’s 55 points entering last week’s break, which began January 26, were equal to that of the 2009-10 team on January 26, 2010 (there was no All-Star Game that season due to the Winter Olympics). That season, the Panthers once again failed to earn double-digit victories down the stretch, finishing 9-16-4 and in fifth place once again.
Those teams, however, do not share many common attributes with this year’s Panthers team. While the aforementioned teams resembled AHL franchises with a few overachieving exceptions, the 2011-12 Panthers are an amalgamation of veteran leadership, grittiness and skill and the Caps realize that as they begin a stretch of three meetings with the Panthers in the next 16 days that could prove vital down the stretch.
“I’d like to think so, but I think they’ve got so many new players that there are a few guys that remember what it’s like to flounder at the end of the year,” Karl Alzner said Monday when asked if the Panthers’ struggles throughout the years will catch up to them. “Most of the guys know what it’s like to win and be successful. That’s why they’re doing well. I don’t think it’s going to make a whole lot of difference for them, but it would be nice if it helped us out. It’s tough to say.”
Those players include Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky, who won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 with their current general manager, Dale Tallon, overseeing things. There is also Ed Jovanovski, who was on the Panthers when they last won a playoff game on April 17, 1997 (they have not made the playoffs since 2000, the longest current drought in the NHL). Of course, Matt Bradley, Tomas Fleischmann and Jose Theodore all know what it is like to be a part of dominating Washington teams during the regular season.
Three games against the Panthers in a span of about two weeks is important, but so is February in general. The Caps play eight of their 14 games on the road, where they are 8-13-3. Not only that, but six of their first 10 games in February are against Southeast Division opponents, including four on the road. Washington is 8-3-1 against their divisional rivals, but only two of those wins have come away from Verizon Center.
There are positives to take out of Tuesday’s loss; the Caps came back from a two-goal deficit on the road without Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, earned 30 shots on goal for the first time since January 7 and a much-needed point. Washington will look to add on that with at least one more game without their three best players. To be blunt, the Caps need to.
“For us, it’s a battle,” head coach Dale Hunter said Monday when asked about Wednesday’s game, though he could easily be referring to the rest of the season. “For them, it’s gonna be a battle.”