WASHINGTON -- For all of general manager Dale Tallon's offseason acquisitions, goalie Jose Theodore could have the biggest say in whether the Florida Panthers clinch their first division title in franchise history.
Theodore (22-15-11, 2.43 goals-against average, .918 save percentage) was the first goalie off the ice at the Panthers morning skate ahead of Thursday night's game against the Washington Capitals. He is expected to start for the Panthers in what is being described as the biggest regular-season game in the club's 18-year history.
Florida leads Washington by four points in the Southeast Division and the Panthers need one point in their final two games to clinch not only the Southeast Division but their first playoff berth since 2000. The Panthers host the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday.
"Goaltending is always an area that's a difference maker in our sport," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "It's no different than a quarterback or a pitcher in baseball, but with a goaltender the big save makes a big difference in the hockey game and over the course of the year we've gotten excellent goaltending from both Scott [Clemmensen] and [Theodore]."
Theodore is likely to get the nod against Washington despite allowing a season-high five goals in Tuesday night's 5-4 overtime loss against the Winnipeg Jets. Theodore is also on a personal six-game losing streak (0-2-4) and has not won since March 17. Clemmensen is 2-0-1 over that same stretch.
"It's always been a hard decision for me this year," Dineen said of choosing a starting goalie. "[Clemmensen] has really given us some incredible snapshots and he's played very well, but at the end of the day Jose has really carried the load and been a real workhorse for us."
Not only can Theodore help the Panthers punch their ticket to the playoffs, but the 35-year-old can also put a serious dent in his former team's chances at returning to the postseason.
Theodore spent two seasons as Washington's No. 1 goalie from 2008-10, but is remembered more for his playoff shortcomings than for his regular-season success.
Theodore went 62-24-12 during his two seasons with the Caps, including a 20-0-3 stretch to end the 2009-10 regular season. But after allowing two goals on two shots in Game 2 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Montreal Canadiens, Theodore was pulled by coach Bruce Boudreau and replaced by Semyon Varlamov for the second straight postseason. Theodore never played for the Capitals again and he has not played at Verizon Center since.
Theodore did not address reporters on game day but his Panthers teammate Tomas Fleischmann, who also played with Theodore in Washington, does not expect a repeat performance.
"We play a different style," Fleischmann noted of this Panthers team compared with the Caps teams they played for two and three years ago. "We played up and down, but right now we play safe hockey with a good defensive-minded game and that's how we want to play. … He's playing very good."
Added Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell: "He's been solid all season, we've had great goaltending and I think for Jose, he's been there all season, he's been solid and he's given us a chance to win every night that he's been in there. I wasn't aware of how good he is and he's definitely a No. 1 goaltender."
Michal Neuvirth (13-13-5, 2.86 GAA, .901 save percentage) will start for the Capitals.