SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 5: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals defends against Tomas Fleischmann #14 of the Florida Panthers on December 5, 2011 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Capitals 5-4. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Four years ago today, the Caps played one of the biggest regular season games in team history - get a point and they'd go to the playoffs (as a Division winner, no less); lose in regulation and they'd hit the links for a fourth-consecutive season. Bruce Boudreau's magical run would either continue a bit longer or be stopped dead in its tracks, leaving fans wondering what might have been if the eventual Hart/Ross/Richard/Lindsay winner and the white-hot goalie had just been able to squeeze one more point out of the 82-game regular season.
The visitors to Verizon Center on that night were the Florida Panthers, who had done the Caps the huge favor of downing the Carolina Hurricanes one night earlier, leaving the door open for Washington to win the Southeast Division.
Four years later, there are obvious parallels: the Caps, after making a November coaching change, find their season hanging in the balance as they host the Panthers with the Division title still a possibility. There's another similarity, too - no one expected either team to be in that position earlier in the season. Of course, that's where things couldn't be more different - the expectations for the teams Boudreau and Dale Hunter took over.
But back to that game in 2008. The Caps opened the scoring just 7:19 in on a goal by Tomas Fleischmann, his 10th goal and 30th point of the season in his 75th game. "Flash" would play two more full seasons in Washington, increasing his goal and point totals and per-game rates in each season before being traded to Colorado in November of 2010 for Scott Hannan.
And now Fleischmann will play in tonight's game as a Florida Panther. In fact, he'll play in tonight's game as Florida's leading goal-scorer and point-getter, earning his keep in the first season of a big multi-year deal. And he's not the only familiar face who has impacted this year's Southeast Division race (and might yet still impact it). Jose Theodore has been the Cats' number one netminder, posting a 22-15-11/2.43/.918 line while getting the most starts he's had since he was a Cap in 2008-09 and the most wins since his 2009-10 campaign for D.C. Marco Sturm has just three goals and two assist in 40 games, but is coming off his first two-point game since he had a goal and an assist for the Caps in March of last year. And Matt Bradley (the other Panther who was a Cap for that 2008 game but won't play in this one as he recovers from a concussion)... well, he's no doubt making sure everyone in the Florida locker room cares enough. Even Nolan Yonkman has gotten a game for the Cats this year, and Krys Barch was a Washington draft pick.
The Caps have a couple of former Panthers as well, of course, and both (Tomas Vokoun and Dennis Wideman) have been significant contributors to this year's team (and don't think the Panthers don't enjoy the irony of Vokoun leaving Florida to play for a contender... who may now not make the playoffs while the Cats are poised to win their first Division title ever).
Anyway, tonight's a big game, just like it was four years ago. A lot of the names are the same. Still more are quite familiar. And hopefully there will be at least one more similarity between that game and this one - a Caps win, preferably by a couple of goals or more.