The Washington Capitals are 7-3 over their last 10 games and finally playing the kind of hockey that fans hoped they would see from them all along. Yet if they suffer an emotional letdown against a wounded Florida Panthers team tonight, they could tumble right back into the basement of the Eastern Conference.
Such is the hole the Caps dug themselves over the first quarter of the season. And tonight’s tilt against the Panthers has the makings of a classic trap game, coming just two nights after Washington’s thrilling come from behind victory over the Boston Bruins.
Arguably the most disappointing team in the NHL after half a season, at least the Panthers can legitimately say they aren’t the same team that won the Southeast last year. Injuries have seen to that, as Florida has nearly as much talent on injured reserve as it does in the lineup. Stephen Weiss was recently lost for the season, joining Jose Theodore, Kris Versteeg, Ed Jovanovski and others on injured reserve.
Alex Kovalev appears to be done with the team too. But all of the roster turmoil has given the next generation of cats a chance to shine. Jonathan Huberdeau leads Florida and all NHL rookies with 11 goals (including two on penalty shots, a rare feat for a rookie). Goalie Jacob Markstrom has shown some serious talent in his first few appearances since Theodore got hurt.
The Caps have had their own injury troubles but appear to be mostly on the mend. Mike Green is still expected to be out, and Troy Brouwer has been sick. Neither of them played Tuesday either, but it didn’t stop Washington from erasing a 3-0 first period deficit against Boston.
Much of that was due to heroics of Eric Fehr, who assisted on two goals before scoring a sensational overtime game-winner. If he doesn’t have an encore in him, consistent Mike Ribeiro (three goals, five assists in his last seven games) and a finally in-form Nicklas Backstrom (seven assists in the previous six games) will be counted on to make things happen.
Coach Adam Oates could continue to lean on Braden Holtby in net, a decision that has paid dividends so far. Holtby has started the last 10 games, recording three shutouts during that stretch–a stretch that, incidentally, began with a blanking of the Panthers.
All of the numbers are in the Caps’ favor. Washington has won both meetings between the teams this year, five straight overall going back to last season, and nine out of the last ten at Verizon Center. They still need to take care of business though, because a stumble tonight could mean that it’s this game, and not the Bruins triumph, that ends up as the watershed moment for 2013.
Florida Panthers at Washington Capitals
Start time: 7 pm EST
TV: Comcast SportsNet DC (Capitals), Fox Sports Florida (Panthers)