Originally posted on NHL Hot Stove  |  Last updated 12/5/11

UNIONDALE, NY - DECEMBER 14: Tomas Vokoun #29 of the Florida Panthers warms up before playing against the New York Islanders on December 14, 2009 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla. — If you head on over to Floridapanthers.com, the front page has a smaller sub-headline that reads like a horror movie title: “The Return of Vokoun.” The mind conjures a terrifying vision of the arrival of a monstrous right-handed catching goalie wearing a white No. 29 Capitals jersey, hitting opponents with his stick, kicking at pucks along the end boards like they are tiny soccer balls and denying rebounds off long shots by defensemen. But it’s really no horror show featuring some alien that’s invading the BankAtlantic Center this evening.

In fact, the headline above it is the real attention-grabber: “The Battle for First.” It’s the second meeting between the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers — the Caps took the first one 3-0 in DC on Oct. 18 — and the first matchup in South Florida. At 7:30, the Panthers return from a 3-game road trip, two on the West Coast, to face Washington and new coach Dale Hunter, who scored his first win Saturday night when the Capitals beat Ottawa 3-2 just 12 seconds into overtime.

With only five points separating the two teams, here’s what to watch for tonight when the first-place Panthers (14-8-4, 32 pts.) host the second-place Capitals (13-11-1, 27 pts.):

Special teams: The power play and penalty kill have been streaky for both clubs this season. At its best, Florida scored five times on the man-advantage and once shorthanded at Tampa Bay in a 7-4 win on Oct. 17. The last three games on the road trip have been the Panthers in a nutshell — a good performance on special teams results in a win, while poor play ends with a loss that’s tough to stomach. In wins over Carolina and San Jose — the origin and end of its road tests — Florida was 3-for-6 on the power play and 6-for-7 in killing penalties. In its lone loss in which it peppered Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick with 42 shots, the Cats were 0-for-6 with the man-advantage and gave up a power-play goal in two chances.

Florida’s 18.7% on the power play (20-for-107) ranks 10th in the NHL. The team’s penalty kill is 18th, having killed 60 of its 73 penalties (82.2%).
Washington grids 21st on the power play (14-for-93, 15.0%) and is 19th at 81.8% when shorthanded.

Familiar Faces as Foes: Writers won’t have to go too far back into the memory bank when it comes to finding a storyline for this one. Tomas Vokoun, who played four seasons for the Panthers and shut the Cats out on 20 shots two months ago, looks to beat his former team again, just as Pete DeBoer naturally wanted a victory over Florida last month when the Devils visited. Like Vokoun, Florida goalie Jose Theodore will try to shut down the offense of his former team, where he played from 2008 to 2010. Red-hot Tomas Fleischmann, who has flourished this season, played in the shadows of Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom during his tenure with the Caps, and Flash would surely enjoy a repeat of his 3-point performance from Saturday against his former teammates.

Expect the Capitals to attempt to neutralize Florida’s speed with plenty of physical play. Florida’s opponents, like the St. Louis Blues last month, have routinely tried to outmuscle them. Getting aggressive with Florida may work, though the team has still managed to be on pace for 101 points this season despite the rough play. Sometimes players like Andre Deveaux and Derek Joslin have resorted to illegal hits to get them off their games, but Florida won both of those as well.

This is a statement game for the Panthers, who are concerned primarily about the season-long war but would like to be victorious in this battle before heading back out on the road. A win helps solidify the notion circulating around the league that they are for real. And really, if they’re going to be taken seriously as a possible postseason player, Florida must regularly beat the teams it faces six times each year within the Southeast Division.

Especially the team that’s sat at the top for so long.

By Bill Whitehead
NHLHS Florida Panthers Credentialed Correspondent
Twitter: @BillWhiteheadFL
Email: BillWhiteheadFL@hotmail.com

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