The Florida Panthers had a chance to clinch the Southeastern Division title on April 3 when they matched up with the Winnipeg Jets. The Panthers haven't been to the NHL playoffs in over a decade and have never won their division in franchise history. There was a playoff atmosphere in South Florida and the fans were hungry for a division title.
The Cats took an early 2-0 lead in the first period. Tomas Fleischmann tacked on another goal early in the second period and I began to imagine the crazy celebration and hockey fan high jinks that were about to take place in Sunrise but Panthers fans know not to start the celebration too early.
The Cats began to fall apart in the second period. Between the second and third periods, the Cats allowed the Jets to score four unanswered goals to make the score 4-3. Thomas Kopecky scored an equalizer for the Panthers late in the third but the Jets prevailed with an overtime goal by Andrew Ladd.
The Playoff Outlook
Fortunately the Cats are still very much in the hunt. The season may come down to a pivotal game against the Washington Capitals on Thursday April 5. As of April 3 the Capitals were in second place in the Southeastern Division and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. If the Cats lose both of their last two games and the Capitals win both of their last two, there is a chance that Washington could slide into first place in the Southeast Division.
I don't really want to go into what scenarios could play out if the Panthers lost both of their last two games, let's just say it wouldn't be a good thing because the Buffalo Sabres are still in the hunt for a playoff spot if they can manage to come in eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Showdown with the Capitals
The game in Washington on April 5 has all the makings of a classic rivalry game. The results of this matchup could possibly resonate with fans and players for years to come. The Panthers are 2-2 against the Capitals this year. It doesn't seem that either team has the upper hand. The Panthers have lost the last four games in a row and haven't looked very good lately but the Capitals haven't been too much better with a 4-4-2 record over their last ten games.
An interesting thing that I'm going to be watching out for is who Coach Kevin Dineen decides to start between the pipes against the Capitals. Jose Theodore has been the source of much of the Panthers' success this year but he has only had one start this season against the Capitals. Theo's only appearance against Washington this year was on Feb. 17 when we drew a loss but had 39 saves on 41 shots. Backup goaltender Scott Clemmensen has much more experience against the Capitals this year with a 2-1 record. It should be interesting to see if Dineen decides to lean on the guy that has gotten them to the brink of the playoffs or if he goes with the Clemmy, who is more experienced against the Capitals.
I would certainly be sure to clear your calendar on Mar. 5 because the Panthers and Capitals game will be one for the ages with pride and playoff implications on the line. Games like this are the ones that create the moments that make ice hockey the greatest game in the world.
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Kristian Eberwein is a freelance journalist from Orlando, Florida. He was an English major at the University of Central Florida and has been a part of the Florida hockey community for the past twenty years. Follow him on Twitter @KrisEberwein