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Facing The League's Best

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
The Panthers lost for just the fourth time in regulation in 2009 in a 4-2 loss to the Capitals on Sunday. Florida is 12-4-3 in the new year and tied for seventh in the Eastern Conference. (AP Photo/Steve Mitchell)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com


SUNRISE - Panther coach Peter DeBoer can appreciate fate.

DeBoer, whose Panthers sit just two points behind the Rangers and Canadiens in the Eastern Conference, mused earlier this week; “The hockey gods have a way of evening things out.”

That could have been the case Sunday at BankAtlantic Center when the Panthers lost to the Capitals 4-2 on the strength of three goals by Alex Ovechkin.

After becoming known the past several weeks for their dramatic comebacks, the Panthers seemed to be painting a similar scene Sunday when they rallied from a 2-0 deficit early in the second period to tie the game on the power play in the third period.

But the comeback was derailed by Ovechkin, who scored two goals (one empty net) in the final 2:31 of regulation to snap the Panthers’ three-game winning streak.

“We had some come-from-behind victories in the last few weeks that maybe we didn’t deserve,” DeBoer said.

On a night when “neither team played very well,” said defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, the Capitals took the karma and the Panthers the consequences.

“Definitely a tough loss because we were right there, said Nathan Horton.

And things don’t get any easier for the boys. The Capitals were the first of four home games this week at BankAtlantic Center with the remaining three teams being the Devils (Tuesday), the Blackhawks Thursday) and the Bruins (Saturday).

Statistic: The Panthers next three opponents are (drum roll, please) – 65 games over .500.

“We have a rough week,” DeBoer said.

And the Panthers most exciting stretch at home in eight years.

Eight games over .500 (28-20-8) and with their best record through 56 games since 2000, the Panthers are well aware of their upcoming opponents and equally aware they’ve skated and beaten some of the best teams this season.

The games and points are “critical,” said DeBoer, who reiterated four teams each missed the playoffs last season by three points or less.

The Panthers will take on a Devils team on a high after having won four consecutive games including wins over the weekend against the Bruins (1-0) and the Sharks (6-5). Goalie Scott Clemmensen has 25 victories, is 2-0 against the Panthers with a 1.45 goals against, and has two shutouts in his last three games. The Devils are five wins and nine points ahead of last year’s record.

The Panthers are also nine points ahead of last year’s record.

HORTON HEATING UP

It hasn’t always been easy this season for Nathan Horton, but it’s been fun.

Horton’s been moved twice from the wing to center and missed nine games before Christmas after suffering an ankle laceration. But the five-year veteran, back at center alongside David Booth and Richard Zednik, is feeling more comfortable in his new role and its showing on the score sheet.

Horton, who hadn’t played at center regularly since he was a junior, will go into Tuesday’s game against the Devils with three goals in his last four games and nine points in his last nine games.

“I think Nathan has really given us a lot of effort,” DeBoer said recently. “From the beginning of the year we’ve thrown a lot at him, as far as changing positions and different linemates. I think he’s starting to feel comfortable. It’s been a transition for a lot of players with a new coach and new coaching staff and systems and positions and linemates. Some guys have adjusted faster than others.

“Nathan had that tough injury (laceration) and I think that set him back prior to Christmas. But I think he’s feeling healthy and comfortable and he’s got a handle on playing center. Things are just coming together for him.”

Horton, who’s second on the team in goals with 16, four of them game winners, says this season has marked a “big difference from the rest of the time I’ve been in Florida.”

“We have new systems and it’s been a big change, especially going from wing to center,” Horton, 23, said. “It’s definitely something you need time getting used to because I haven’t done it in so long, but I wouldn’t be the only one to say that.”

But Horton, who has seven multiple-point games, said he’s happy at center.

“I do feel more comfortable now,” he said. “I’m starting to like it better than wing now. When I went back to wing (before Christmas) I didn’t like it as much. But I actually like it. I think it’s harder work, but you can do a little more on the ice. You have a lot more responsibility.”

The toughest part of playing center? “When you’re back in your own end and trying to be the first guy on the forecheck,” Horton said. “It’s a little tough, but I think it’s fun, too.”

As is taking draws in the faceoff circle. “I’ve got to work on it a little more and get better,” he said. “But, I guess, I’ve been doing all right.”

NOTES

With his two points Sunday evening, Stephen Weiss set a career-high for assists with 30. He had 29 last season in 74 games…Cory Stillman not only has a five-game point streak, but he has 16 points in his last 15 games…Rookie Michael Frolik, who has a three-game, goal-scoring streak, is tied for seventh among rookies in points (27), sixth in goals (14) and third in shots (102)…In three games against the Panthers this season, Alex Ovechkin has ripped off 27 shots…Defenseman Karlis Skrastins, who had a game-high five blocked shots against the ‘Caps, is tied for 16th in the league in blocks with 111…Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester continues to lead the league in time on ice with 27:20 per game. Anaheim’s Scott Niedermayer is second with 27:12…
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