Saturday, February 7, 2009

Tonight's Matchup and Foe - The Florida Panthers

Tonight two NHL Southeast Division foes meet at Washington's Verizon Center, aka "The Phone Booth" (too bad we aren't in Brooklyn so it could be "Da Foone Boot" eh?). When the Washington Capitals host the Florida Panthers tonight, it will be the number one team in the division taking on the second place team in the division. The Capitals come into the game with 70 points, an overall record of 33-16-4 (0.660), a home record of 21-4-1, and a 6-3-1 record in their last ten games. The Panthers come in to the game with 58 points, an overall record of 25-18-8 (0.569), an away record of 12-12-3, and a 6-2-2 record in their last ten games. If the season ended today, both teams would be in the playoffs, Washington firmly in second place in the Eastern Conference and Florida holding precariously onto the eight and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, just one point ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins. As far as stakes for the game go, tonight the Capitals are looking to stay ahead of the New Jersey Devils who take on the Los Angeles Kings at Prudential Center in Newark for second place in the East and stay on pace with or gain two points on Boston who take on Philadelphia this afternoon. Meanwhile, Florida is looking to increase their lead on Carolina who plays tonight in Arizona against Phoenix, and Pittsburgh who is idle tonight. Florida also has a chance to make up some ground on Buffalo, who plays Ottawa in the second of back to back games tonight having beat Montreal 3-2 last night, and Philadelphia, if the Flyers and Senators win tonight. Florida is three points behind both the Sabres and Flyers. Yes .. it is that time of year again - the push for the playoffs, the time of year when each game really starts to matter. Right now in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals, Devils and Canadeans (and too a lesser extent, the Bruins) are fighting for seeding and home ice advantage in the first and second rounds of the playoffs. The Panthers, Flyers, Sabres, Hurricanes, Penguins, and to a lesser extent are six teams fighting for the final four playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs, Lightning, Thrashers and Islanders are playing for respectability and pride since even though they are not mathematically "out of it" they all need substantially better records than they have had over the past two months to make the playoffs. So with the stage set how do the key match ups between the Panthers and Caps look tonight?
There are some really hot players on both the Caps and Panthers right now. The match ups between the two teams will depend on how those key players perform. Additionally, the overall match up between each squad's "grinders" will be key, especially for the Capitals. If the Capitals need any extra motivation, they need only look to the idea of preserving and extending the best home ice record in the Eastern Conference, but the fact they are playing a team they will face five times in the final nine weeks of the season and three times in the next three weeks, may well be the best motivator. The defensive-minded Panthers are one of three East teams without a 40-point scorer, so a key to their success or failure tonight will be their goaltending and their ability to slow the high powered Washington Offense. The Capitals have four players who already have more than 40 points and two others who are at 31 points, though Viktor Kozlov is currently day to day and will probably not be dressed for tonight's game. The Caps high octane offense include Alexander Ovechkin who leads the league in goals scored and Mike Green who leads all defensemen in goals scored. As for further motivation, Florida is one of the few teams to have won a game against the Caps at Verizon Center this season; Florida won 5-3 in the nation's capital on Dec. 2, a result that remains the Capitals' only regulation loss to an East team at the Verizon Center.
Key Matchups:
In Goal: Theodore/Neuvirth vs. Vokoun/Anderson
For the Caps Jose Theodore will be in net backed up by rookie Michal Neuvirth, who has yet to play a minute in the NHL due to injuries to Brent Johnson and Simeon Varlamov. Theodore will have a heavy workload over the next two months, with backup Brent Johnson slated to have hip surgery next week. Though Theo is five goals against versus Los Angeles matched a season "high", he is still playing quite well overall with a 11-3-1 record and a 2.21 GAA in his previous 15 starts. The twenty year old Neuvirth is the eighth goalie to suit up for a game for the Caps this season. The Panthers' Thomas Vokun is one of the hottest goalies in the league right now, he is coming of his 15th victory of the year. The Panthers snapped the New York Islanders' four-game winning streak with a 3-2 victory on Thursday where Vokoun continued his strong play, making 20 saves to move to 7-2-2 with a 2.15 goals-against average since the beginning of January. While Vokoun will be the likely starter for the Panthers, Florida backup Craig Anderson is also available, ready and playing well this season. With a 10-4-5 record and three shutouts in 23 starts this season, Anderson is a guy who can also be counted on to make the Capitals' forward lines night hard work. Rating goalie match ups is always a "dicey" thing this time of year, especially when looking at and prognosticating about the likely performances of what amounts to three pretty hot, talented guys and a very talented "kid" with something to prove. That said call this one for the Panthers.
Earlier this week, the Caps recalled rookie first round draft pick Karl Alzner and John Erskine will be a healthy scratch tonight according to Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post. The biggest defenseman match up of course is Mike Green vs. Jay Boumeester, both are two of the most talented defensemen in the league today. Comparing them to each other is pretty tough though, they play very different games and are very different guys. Green is a 6-1, 205 pound skating defenseman who is freewheeling player who hits sparingly and whose key defensive play is rooted in his speed and stick work at both ends of the ice. He is recently being talked about as a potential Norris Trophy candidate as well and he has been fairly hot with 8 points in his last three game splayed. Boumeester is a 6-4, 212 pound solid, more traditional defenseman who plays tough hockey and, though not flashy, has solid offensive skills. His talent has made him a two time all-star in his five NHL seasons. The next match up would be the Panthers Bryan McCabe vs. the Caps Tom Poti. The 33 year old McCabe has four more years left on a relatively rich contract, is the Panthers' highest paid defenseman. On paper McCabe is the Panthers offensive minded defenseman, however his productivity over the past three seasons have not matched the levels of his earlier career and as was displayed during his 19 goal 2005-2006 season with Toronto. The 31 year old Poti has three years left on what now looks like a very good deal for the Caps. He is a solid minute muncher, has proven capable of quarterbacking the power play when neither green nor Federov are available, and has been solid on the penalty kill for the Caps. At a $3.5M price tag, Poti routinely matches up well against higher paid, flashier names such as McCabe for the Capitals and balances the frenetic play of Green, Ovechkin and the other Capital "Young Guns" on one shift with a more deliberate, calmer, controlled play when he is one the ice. The rest of each pack is solid on both sides with an edge to the Panthers that counterbalances the advantage the Caps have when looking at the top two match ups. Call this facet of the match up a draw.
It's not as simple as it looks to just say from the statistics that clearly favor the Capitals. The two teams play very different games. If the Caps play their game, aggressive, forechecking and talented disciplined short passes to break out of their zone so they don't fall victim of a clogged neutral zone and 4-1 trap, they will win these match ups decidedly. If they don't, it'll be December 2nd all over again. Given the Caps had a let down on Thursday against the Kings and they want to make a statement to a team they will face five times before the end of the season, it's probably a safe bet the Caps will work hard to make sure that doesn't happen. The key to this match up probably is Vokoun/Anderson - the Caps forwards need to expect the Panthers' goaltenders to come up big often and not get frustrated. In addition to their usual play, they will need traffic in front. As much Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Semin's play needs to be big; Laich, Fehr, Bradley, Fleischmann, and Nylander will need to generate traffic in front to ensure the Panthers' netminders are vulnerable. The key for the Caps forwards will be to NOT get frustrated and stay on their game plan. The Panthers forwards need to play the game they play so well,clog the neutral zone and look for the Caps to get frustrated and impatient and then pounce on their mistakes. A few big saves by Theodore should have an even greater negative impact on the Panthers since the FloridaCats don't take nearly as many shots on goal as the Capitals do in a normal game. Assume the Capitals come out, stay to their game plan and execute and this match up goes decidedly to the Caps.
All things about this game says unless Vokoun or Anderson steals this one for Florida it's:
Caps 4 - Panthers 2. Time to Rock the Red is nearing.

LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!!!!!

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