The Florida Panthers, deemed “uncatchable” when they had a 14-point lead over the Washington Capitals five weeks ago, come into the MCI Center tonight to play the Caps for the fourth time overall this season. With the Panthers’ lead pared to four points, there will be a lot more on the line for this game than in the previous meetings.
With 23 games left in the regular season, this game could be as telling as any for either team. Washington will throw its wedge defense against Pavel Bure, who has scored nearly one-quarter of Florida’s 181 goals this season, and try to spoil the anticipated return of Florida goalie Trevor Kidd, out since Dec. 13 with a shoulder injury.
“I honestly didn’t believe that was possible,” Caps coach Ron Wilson said about getting this close to the Panthers after calling them “uncatchable” after his team’s 3-1 win over Florida on Jan. 19.
“I don’t want to be saying now, ‘Hey, we’ve got six weeks to go, let’s catch New Jersey.’ You have to be reasonable when you set your sights. It just so happens they’ve slumped a little bit and we’ve got ourselves in decent position, but four points is still a lot to make up against a good team, and they have a good team.”
Bure has a league-leading 42 goals and probably will become the first player since 1997-98 to score 50. Ray Whitney and Mark Parrish both have more than 20 goals, and Viktor Kozlov has 42 assists and 56 points as Bure’s center, showing why Florida has scored 37 more goals than it has allowed. Keeping Bure within respectable limits keeps the Panthers within sight.
“First of all, puck possession down low,” Wilson said when asked how to slow the Russian Rocket. “We’re a good cycling team, and and if he doesn’t have the puck, you’ve done as much to control him as anything. Being aware of where he is on the ice is very important, and whoever is out there must understand you cannot allow him in the middle. If he’s going to damage us, it’s [going to have to be] from the outside.
“You really have to be diligent, 100 percent committed to knowing where he is and responding in kind when he is on the ice. Because as soon as that transition occurs, it’s like when the horn sounds on a submarine and you dive everybody has to respond to the drill properly.”
Recently some teams have tried to assign one particular individual to shadow Bure, taking the ice whenever the right wing does. Wilson saw that as too much of a disruption, breaking up lines and probably causing too-many-men penalties.
“If he scores one and that’s the only goal they score, you probably get a point if not win the game,” the coach said. “Because he scores doesn’t mean you lose the game. We have to make sure we limit his damage and ensure others don’t damage us.”
The Caps, meanwhile, will be trying to extend a team-record nine-game winning streak and a 12-game (11-0-1) undefeated run at home, one shy of tying the team mark. This comes as the club tries to break its first winless streak (0-1-1) since Christmas, when it lost in Vancouver and tied Chicago. The Caps are 5-3-2 in their last 10, Florida is 5-5-0.
“You always worry about [slowing down], but we’ve played all those games on the road,” Wilson said, referring to seven of the Caps’ last eight games. “You look at our road record over the last two months, and it’s pretty darn good (7-4-3). The games we’ve lost have been the second halves of back-to-backs, with Pittsburgh the exception. If we’re fresh I’m confident we can beat teams, and if we’re a little pooped, I’m glad to get out of [Raleigh, N.C., on Monday] with a point.”
Washington now gets to play two in a row at home. That hasn’t happened since January, the month that put the Caps back in contention.