The Florida Panthers take on the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday, November 6, from the BankAtlantic Center. While the first week of November is not “must-win” territory for hockey teams, this game is a close as you can come so early in the season.
Why? The answer varies. For the fans, this new “brand” of Florida Panthers hockey is fun, but the team is only 6-4-2 with 14 points. They are tied with the Lightning for second in the division, and are four points and three wins behind the Washington Capitals in the Southeast Division. If the playoffs were to start today, Florida would sit in seventh place, but it really is too soon to project playoff spots. The fans expect winning. After all, they have (or had) the Miami Heat right down the road. .500 will not cut it for them.
The team is playing with a purpose. They are skating hard and outshooting opponents, even in losses when they are playing poorly. They are the “Comeback Kids” and never give up. This team wants to win and believes they can, every day. However, after giving away two points to each the Winnipeg Jets and Chicago Blackhawks, they must beat Tampa Bay tomorrow. On a three game homestand, a good team gets four or more points. The only way to do this (and to get the bad taste of two consecutive shootout losses out of their mouths) is to get a win, and keep the game in regulation. They cannot give the Lightning a free point. A regulation victory is the only way this homestand can be considered a success.
QUESTION “MARKS” IN NET
If you told Scott Clemmensen in training camp his biggest start of the season would come in San Antonio, he probably would think you were kidding. Clemmensen and José Théodore were slated the be goalies “1 and 1-A” this season. Instead, Clemmensen had knee surgery and has been out of action since midway through September.
That meant one of the two goalies slated for AHL time this year had to start his season with the Panthers. With Théodore anointed as the number one, Jacob Markström was selected as the one that would ride the pine for the first month of the season.
There was one problem. He is actually pretty good. Markström has played in five games this year, putting together a 2-2-1 record, and earning his first victory on October 22 against the New York Islanders. He stopped 18 shots in the win. All of those shots came in the third period, as he was relieving Théodore. Markström sits in fourth place with a .944 save percentage, and is 11th with a 2.05 goals-against average.
Yes, the rookie is making this a hard decision. There are a few options the Panthers have. They can roll with three goalies. They can attempt to trade Clemmensen. They could send Markström down anyway, and give him the rest of the year in San Antonio. Really, any of those three options are good. Clemmensen will have to have a good start tonight, and assuming Markström starts tomorrow, he will have to have an equally good performance, to make this a hard decision. Regardless of the solution, too much goaltending is the best problem a team can have.
The Panthers have played the Lightning twice this season, and by the end of the month, will have played five games already. The natural rivals come back to town the day after Thanksgiving, and will not return to South Florida again (barring a playoff match-up), in the 2011-12 season. The final game of the series will be in February. Florida has had Tampa’s number as of late, winning nine out of the 14 meetings since the 2009-10 season. Florida holds a 55-35-10 all time record all time, including 32-14-4 at home and 2-0-0 this season. This success comes despite the Lightning’s success over the past decade, and the Panthers lack thereof. Florida won the last match-up 7-4 in Tampa Bay on October 17. They scored five power-play goals in the game, tying a franchise high. They won their home opener on October 15, beating the Lightning 3-2 in a shootout.
Will Florida go to 3-0-0 against their Sunshine State rivals? Not if Steven Stamkos has anything to say about it. The Panthers have kept him quiet this season so far, but he had a hat trick Friday night against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Panthers will get worn down over the next few weeks. They play Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday this week, with Tuesday’s game on the road in Canada against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Thursday’s game against their divisional rivals in Winnipeg. After two days off, they will play eight games in 14 days. They return home for one game against the Philadelphia Flyers, and then travel to Dallas and St. Louis. They then have a four-game homestand, taking on the Pittsburgh Penguins on November 19, New Jersey Devils on the 21st, New York Rangers on the 23rd, and Tampa Bay Lightning the 25th, as part of their Thanksgiving Feast. From the Philadelphia game to the Lightning game, they play every other day, and the Thanksgiving games are sure to bring in many fans of the opposing teams, who may be vacationing for the holiday in South Florida. After the game against the Tampa, they play the back end of the home-and-home the following day, November 26th. This will be a tough stretch for the Panthers, and this week they must get momentum for this long stretch of games with little time off.
COMMUNITY EVENT ALERT
Attention Panthers fans in the Pemberoke Pines, Cooper City, Davie, Southwest Ranches, Weston, Miramar, and Hollywood areas: The Cats will be holding a practice at the Pines Ice Arena (Flamingo Road and Taft Street in Pembroke Pines) Saturday, November 12 at 10:00 AM. This is as part of “Come Play Hockey Month.” From the Panthers website: “Players will sign autographs after the practice (subject to availability) and the Panthers Patrol will be on hand with prize giveaways, along with Stanley C. Panther and the Redline Lady Panthers.”