If you asked anyone at the beginning of the season if they thought the Florida Panthers would be leading the Southeast Division about a third of the way into the NHL season, the only folks that would have answered affirmatively would have been a subset of very confident Florida Panther players. But if you'd waited until October 26 - after the Washington Capitals staked out to a blazing 7-0 season-opening start - to ask who thought the Panthers would be leading the Southeast division on December 5, odds are that not one person in North America would have raised their hand. But a first-place Panther squad is exactly what the NHL is witnessing.
Tonight, the Caps squared off against the upstart Panthers - a completely re-built team with a lot of familiar faces to Caps fans - and looked to shave into the 'Cats five point division lead by securing Dale Hunter's first road win of his coaching career.
It didn't happen. Florida dominated Washington the first two periods, skated out to a 5-1 lead, withstood a furious third-period Caps rally, and skated away with a 5-4 victory. They are now seven points ahead of the Caps.
Ten more notes on the game:
- The difference in today's game? Special teams. Florida was 3-6 and the Caps 0-2 on the power play.
- Discipline was clearly a problem tonight, with numerous bonhead plays that led to Panther power plays. One particular sequence highlighted the discipline problems: Bracken Kearns takes a first-period run at Jeff Halpern and nails him hard (but clean). John Erskine immediately reminds him that taking such liberties is a no-no. Erskine beats Kearns to a pulp, but racks up 17 minutes in the process, puts the Caps down a man and messes up the defensive pairings. Winner? Panthers. Perhaps the Caps are trying too hard to impress the new coach?
- That said, not all penalties the Caps took were legitimate. The "interference" penalty on Troy Brouwer had to be one of the oddest penalties ever witnessed, where the ref mistakenly thought Brouwer had kicked the stick at an opposing player. (Admit it, after a voo-doo call like that, the fatalist Caps fan in you knew Florida would score. They did.)
- One potential story-line from tonight was the chance to see Tomas Vokoun and Jose Theodore battling against their old teams. But it wasn't meant to be, and the winner of the Battle of the Backups turned out to Scott Clemmensen, solely becayuse he was slightly less shaky than his counterpart Michael Nuevirth. Neuvy, by the way, is doing his best to play himself back to Hershey with that woeful 0.873 save percentage.
- When the Caps look back on this game, they're going to see so many wasted chances to have done the right thing. Take, for example, the Panthers fifth goal. Former Cap Tomas Fleischmann comes in one-on-five, beats everyone, blindly passes the puck back to an unmarked Steven Weiss, who deposits it into an empty net. All five Caps skaters were within 15 feet of the goal, yet no one picked Weiss up. For that matter, no one decided to do much about Flash either. Failing to execute on the small things can kill you.
- Mike Knuble scored a beautiful goal, beating Clemmensen five hole to slice the deficit to two. (But tell me his wind-up didn't feel it took an hour to get off his stick!) He also was a force on the second Caps goal, tying up two Panther defenders and allowing Cody Eakin to walk in and beat Clemmensen to start the rally.
- On the flip side, Knuble got burned pretty bad on the Panthers fourth goal, where he gave up the post and allowed Caps-killer Sean Bergenheim to wrap one home. It's those little things that kill.
- Dmitry Kulikov had the period of his life today, netting three points in the first period. For those of you that have no idea who he is, he is a defenseman for the Panthers.
- John Carlson had himself a nice game tonight, with three assists, eight SOG and a +3 rating in 26+ minutes.
- And Jason Chimera....yes, that's 11 goals on the season! Hands of silk!
Give the Caps some credit. They could have mailed it in when it was 5-1. Instead they rallied, fought hard to the absolute bitter end and made it close. There are positives that can taken away from that, specifically that the team showed some heart and appeared to, for a few brief minutes, enjoy the game again.
Sure, naysayers might say that the Caps could only muster offense after Florida eased off the pedal at 5-1, or that the goaltending left a lot to be desired, or that the defensive zone coverage was a constant adventure. And it would certainly be true. But the Caps are still a work in progress and four games is not enough time for the Caps to gel under Dale Hunter's style or system. Patience should be the buzzword through the month of December. As awful as the first 40 minutes were, Caps fans just saw a 20-minute glimpse of what an inspired Caps team can play like. If Dale can routinely channel that energy and confidence, the Caps will be right back in the thick of the Eastern Conference race shortly.