So tomorrow evening in Sunrise, FL the Washington Capitals who have been struggling mightily of late to regain their confidence and swagger and their "game" play the Florida Panthers who have basically been doing the exact opposite, the Panthers are about 4/10th's of the way into their best NHL season in several years. It'll be the second of six meetings this season between Florida and Washington. The Capitals won the first meeting 3-0, that game was in a different universe, while it was on the same sheet of ice that tomorrow's game will be played on, it was apparently in a different time-space continuim, on October 18th while the Capitals were on a 7-0 tear at the start of the season. That was before the Capitals started looking even less than human while they were still super-heros who it seemed could do whatever they want and still win hockey games. it was before Bruce Boudreau was replaced by Dale Hunter and it was well before the Panthers amassed anything like their current 14-8-4 record and 32 points to take over the Southeast Division lead for the first time in more than a couple years. It was before the Panthers went 7-3-3 during the month of November.
The difference in current mindset and attitude of these two teams might be best ascertained by comparing their records over the past 10 games - Florida: 6-3-1; Washington: 3-7-0. That said, my thoughts might be going in a different direction than you think though. For Florida, their website is building the game up as the "Fight for First Place" as in the fight for the first place in the Southeast Division. That shouldn't even be a fight of course and it is but it's a meaningless one as we Cap's fans well know. Winning the division without winning the conference has gotten the Capitals little to nothing these past few post seasons. In that regard, it's about having home ice advantage and it's about being in position to "go deep" in the playoffs. So from that regard for Panthers it is indeed important. It's also about making sure they don't get shutout 3-0 again like they did last meeting; its about making sure they make Sunrise, FL a hard place for division rivals play against the Panthers.
For the Capitals the game is even more important and it is so for at least three really big, good reasons:
1) It could be the difference between knowing they might still have a season because they can win games against their Division foes on the road, heck right now it's important they beat anybody on the road. The worst loss of the recent face-plant in my book was in some ways, probably when they went up to Uniondale on November 5th and lost 5-3. The Capitals road record is 4-7-0 so far this season, for the Capitals to get their season back on track they need to start playing at least 0.500 hockey on the road and 0.600 hockey at Verizon Center. The time for that to get started is sooner rather than later, so what better time for Dale Hunter to get his second win and first win on the road as coach of the Capitals than tomorrow night at Sunrise, FL?
2) The Capitals need the two points a win against Florida will give them more that the Panthers need them. Right now the Caps are actually "the bubble team"in the Eastern Conference. They sit with a precarious hold on the eighth and final playoff spot with 27 points. the same point total as ninth place Ottawa and tenth place Montreal.
3) A win, especially a win in regulation would be put new Coach Dale Hunter's record at a respectable 2-2-0 and would also be the first win in regulation for the Capitals under Hunter. it would also be another brick in the rebuilding of a wall of confidence in the Capital Team's collective psyche' as regards the "Hunter Era". It could get even better if the Capitals top six forwards hit on all eight cylinders and get their offense as well as the defense in gear.
The other interesting battle that will likely play out tomorrow at Sunrise, FL will be Jose Theodore vs. Tomas Vokoun. Theo wasn't in the net the last time the two teams met, Jacob Markstrom was, as was the Vokoun who stopped 20 shots and was the first star of that game. During the Panthers last ten games Theodore has played in eight games posted a 5-2-1 record and a 0.933 SV%. The recent performances by both Theodore and Vokoun and the importance of the game for both teams make a showdown by the two against their former teams very likely tomorrow night... I'm looking forward to it, I hope you are two. I'm also looking very forward to seeing the Capitals forwards continue their return to the scene and to the job of scoring goals too.
LETS GO CAPS!!!!!