CORAL SPRINGS – Back in November before a road trip through Canada, Peter DeBoer challenged his team by saying they were at a crossroad.
Despite several of their key players out of the lineup and trailing in the standings, the Panthers responded by winning three of four games and earning six of eight points.
Welcome to another crossroad.
Beginning Saturday in Washington when they play the Southeast Division-leading Capitals, the Panthers will begin what will be the most demanding and likely most critical part of their schedule.
Through March 3, the Panthers will play 13 games in 24 days. Ten of those games will be against teams with winning records, nine will be against teams above the Panthers in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and five will be against Southeast Division rivals.
“It’s a tough stretch, maybe the toughest stretch of the season over the next three weeks,” said Panther coach Peter DeBoer after Friday morning practice here at IncredibleIce.
Catch your breath. The games include:
*Three against the Capitals, one of the league’s most dynamic offensive teams with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green.
*Two against the NHL’s top team, the Boston Bruins.
*Two more against the Atlantic Division-leading Devils.
*Two more against the Rangers, currently ranked fifth in the Eastern Conference.
*One at BankAtlantic Center against the Blackhawks, currently fourth in the Western Conference.
The Panthers will play the Rangers, Bruins, Devils on the road and at home. Two of their three games against the Capitals will be in Washington. They’ll also host Toronto and Chicago and play in Atlanta.
“Ten of the teams we’re playing are playoff teams or above us in the standings, so it’s probably a crossroads part of the season,” DeBoer said. “If we can survive this and keep playing above .500 and come out of it on the other end, we’ll be in good shape. But we have to make sure we don’t get into any extended slump.”
The Panthers left South Florida for Washington after Friday’s practice with a 3-2 victory Thursday over the Islanders fresh in their mind. The Panthers are now 9-2-3 in the new year and 18-7-7 in their last 32 games. But they’ll face a stiff challenge in the Capitals and the league’s leading goal scorer in Ovechkin.
During the Capitals 5-4 loss Thursday to the Kings, Ovechkin became only the fifth player in NHL history to score 200 goals in his first 300 games. Ovechkin’s 37th goal of the season – the 200th of his career – came in game No. 296.
He joined the company of Wayne Gretzky (242 games), Mike Bossy (255), Mario Lemieux (277) and Brett Hull (280). Only Ovechkin, Gretzky, Lemieux and Bossy have scored 200 goals before the end of their fourth season.
“It’s cool to do something and hear about Gretzky and Lemieux,” Ovechkin told WashingtonCapitals.com. “That’s not something you think of doing.”
While the Capitals have struggled this season against Western Conference opponents (7-9), they’re 26-7-4 against teams in the Eastern Conference.
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau was not happy with his team’s effort Thursday against the Kings, especially the first 40 minutes. In fact, Boudreau referred to the first two periods as “bad as we’ve played all year.”
The Panthers last meeting with the Capitals resulted in a 5-3 victory Dec. 2 in Washington. It was the Capitals first home loss. But DeBoer realizes the Capitals’ offensive potential.
“I think they’re the most explosive team in the league, top to bottom,” DeBoer said. “We’re working on some defensive assignments today. We usually play better when we’re a little scared, and we should be scared of this team.”
DeBoer was asked what the key would be for the Panthers in their final 30 games of the season.
“Obviously, goaltending. Tomas Vokoun has been real solid,” DeBoer began. “And staying healthy. Right now we’re healthy and health will play a big part in it.”NOTES
David Booth has 19 points (eight goals) in the last 15 games he’s played…Stephen Weiss
has eight points in his last five games…Vokoun is 7-2-2 in his last 11 games…The Panthers are ranked 21st on the power play and 15th on the penalty kill…The Capitals have the league’s fourth-best power play (third at home) and are ranked 24th overall killing penalties…The Capitals will be without captain Chris Clark, who underwent surgery Thursday on his forearm…Mike Green set a club record Thursday night by becoming the Capital’s first defenseman to score goals in five consecutive games…