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Notebook: Battle For First (Again)

by Glenn Odebralski / Florida Panthers
The Panthers and Capitals will do battle for the fourth time this season Tuesday with a game in Washington. Mike Weaver and the Panthers have won two of the three games of the series against Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals (both victories at the BankAtlantic Center) (Getty Images)

Playing in the first game out of the All-Star break last Wednesday, the Panthers and Capitals faced off in a key Southeast division match-up. There, Florida got two goals from Mikael Samuelsson and earned a 4-2 victory to take a one-point lead in the race for the Division's top spot.

Fast forward to a week later and the Panthers and Capitals will be facing off in another key match-up with the Panthers still holding onto that one-point lead.

Falling to Tampa Bay by a score of 6-3 Saturday night, Florida looks to rebound in Washington Tuesday night.

"It's a big game for us," said head coach Kevin Dineen following the Panthers practice Monday at Iceplex. "We were disappointed with the outcome and our overall consistent effort in Tampa, so we're looking at this as a very important game to really get us going for the stretch run."

While Florida had the backing of the home crowd in the last contest between the two, they'll be on the road this time and going into a boisterous Verizon Center. The Capitals are 18-7-1 at home but lost their last game on Sunday, 4-1, to the Bruins.

"It's always tough playing games on the road, no matter who you're playing. You're going into their place. Obviously it was good for us to get the win here in our building," said goaltender Scott Clemmensen. "It's a tough game either way you look at it. We're in a fight with them in the division. They're coming off a loss to us so they're going to be ready to go as well.

"It's a big game. It's a big game for both teams. It's always more challenging when you're trying to beat a team in their own barn."

If Florida is to bounce back and increase their lead in the division then they'll have to limit the turnovers, something they couldn't do against the Lightning.

"We feel that a lot of the goals were scored and the chances against that we gave up were direct results of preventable plays," said Dineen. "There was opportunities for us to make better quality decisions and we didn't. Against teams like that, they will come back and make you pay for it and they have some of the most skilled players in the league over there and we have got to have better awareness and we didn't and we paid for it so it was a painful lesson for us."

With 31 games left on the schedule, including three more against the Capitals, the Panthers know that it's getting to be crunch time, even at the beginning of February.

"It seems like every game we play is a big game. For us, I think it's important those division games that we come out with two points to keep staying ahead," said center Marcel Goc. "We're ahead right now by one point. We want to stay there and to do that, we've got to clean up a little bit defensively and make the right plays at the right times."

"I think that it's not only us, it's around the league, said Clemmensen. "I think that's just the nature of hockey in February and March. With 31 games left to play, there's still a lot of jockeying and that's why I think that last week and this week and next week are big for us, coming out of the All-Star break to start off the playoff push on the right foot for us. It's not the be-all, end-all but they are very important games and especially the games that we are playing in our division...that we're going to be fighting with for the divisional lead."

"That's the way our situation we've put ourselves in the situation," said Dineen. "There's a playoff spot up for grabs right now. It's going to be certainly a well contested spot by the end of the year."

Throughout the season, a coach will use hundreds of different line combinations, all in hopes of finding success.

Put together as a line following the All-Star break, Goc, Samuelsson and Sean Bergenheim have played extremely well. The trio has combined for 10 points (five goals) in the three games since the break. That includes two of the three goals in Saturday night's loss to Tampa Bay.

While Samuelsson and Bergenheim have seen stat success - Samuelsson with four points (3-1-4) in last three games and four-game point streak overall and Bergenheim with four points (2-2-4) in last three games - the line's success has been pointed to the man in the middle, Goc, who has two assists over the same span.

"I think that anybody that plays with Marcel, he makes the game very easy for his wingers," said Dineen. "He's very responsible on the defensive side and he gives you the ability to know that you have somebody that is responsible that way and he also is skilled enough to make quality plays.

"That line has been a good line for us."

While the line has been contributing offensively, leave it to the even-keeled Goc to look at the whole picture.

"We've scored some goals but I think overall our role is to be better defensively," said Goc. "We've created chances but it doesn't mean you can give up the same amount of chances so I think that's one area where us as a line and I think we as a team have got to get better down the stretch if want to have success."

Goalies Jose Theodore and Jacob Markstrom worked out prior to the Panthers practice with goaltending coach Robb Tallas. Defenseman Ed Jovanovski took part in skating drills as well.

For Theodore, it will be a wait-and-see approach as he continues to nurse a lower-body injury.

"He got a good skate in and that's what we're looking for is to make sure that he comes back and he's feeling strong," said Dineen. "It's a day-to-day injury right now so we'll see how he reacts from today's workout and I'll access his availability for us tomorrow night."

Forward Jack Skille took part in the team practice but Dineen stated that the forward was unavailable for Tuesday's game. It wasn't good news for for Marco Sturm as the forward had a minor knee surgery and could miss the next three to four weeks.
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