SUNRISE, Fla. – In hockey, one relies on luck almost as much as skill. Some friendly bounces and help from the NHL’s “War Room” helped the Panthers gain two significant points as they beat their division rival Washington Capitals 3-1 in front of 15,231 fans at the BankAtlantic Center Wednesday night. With the win, Florida returns to the top spot in the Southeast Division, taking the spot from the Capitals.
After a scoreless first frame, the Panthers came out strong in the second. It was the weirdest of weird, however, that lit the lamp for the first time. Just 33 seconds into the period, Mikael Samuelsson ripped a hard shoot in from the right side, just in front of the center line, next to the Panthers penalty box. His pinpoint accuracy on the rocket made Michal Neuvirth look silly, as it went off the inside left side post and in, putting the Panthers up 1-0. After the game, he said it was the longest shot he’s had that went in past a goalie. The NHL has it registered as an 88-foot shot.
“You score from outside the blue line and sometimes you don’t ask how,” Coach Kevin Dineen said.
The Capitals got the goal back midway in the period, as Brooks Leich got the puck in the nearside corner. He skated into the faceoff circle and was able to rip a hard wrist shot towards the top shelf, past Scott Clemmensen’s glove. It was his 10th goal of the season, coming 11:15 into the frame to tie the game at one.
After the excitement of the first two periods, the game appeared to be heading for a climatic conclusion. After Matt Hendricks interfered with Clemmensen in the crease , the Panthers found themselves on the powerplay, where they came in eighth in the league. The man-advantage paid off. Stephen Weiss entered the zone, and drop passed the puck to Tomas Fleischmann, who was trailing. Fleischmann then sent it to the left when Brian Campbell sent it to Samuelsson, who ripped another hard shot from the point to give the Panthers the one goal lead, at 2-1.
Halfway into the period, the Panthers went up another goal, amid controversy. Fleischmann intercepted the puck after Weiss had lost the faceoff in the right circle. He passed it down low to Tomas Kopecky, who put the pressure on Neuvirth. The puck came loose and went off of Weiss into the net. Weiss also ended up in the net, causing the referee, Stephane Auger, to wave off the goal. After about a five-minute review of the goal, which was sent to the “War Room” in Toronto, Auger’s call was overturned as it was determined that Weiss did not interfere with Neuvirth and he did not beat the puck into the net, and the Panthers had a two goal lead at 3-1.
“I didn’t know they had waived it off in the first place, so it’s nice to get one overturned,” Weiss said. “It wasn’t looking too good there. I didn’t know why it was taking so long. I was nervous, but we’ll take it.”
Washington was able to get the goal back with under three minutes left, as John Carlson fired a slapshot past Clemmensen to make it 3-2.
Shawn Matthias sealed the victory with an empty net goal, his ninth of the season, with just 52.8 seconds left in the game. The game ended on that score of 4-2.
This wasn’t the first time the two teams have played a strange game. In their last meeting, on December 5 in Sunrise, the Panthers got out to a 5-1 lead in the second period, but Washington scored three unasnwered goals to turn a lackluster effort into a 5-4 loss. Neuvirth was also in goal for that game, stopping 25 of 30 shots. In this one, he let just three of the 37 go by.
Clemmensen was impressive, despite his two blemishes. He stopped 26 of 28 and earned the number three star of the game.
“I’m really impressed with the way he played tonight,” Dineen said. “We kept them in the game with some of our puck decisions. Time and again, [Clemmensen] came up big for us and that is what you need, your goaltender to win you some games. He’s well deserving of that W tonight.”
Over the last four games, Clemmensen has emerged as the top goalie for the Panthers, going 2-0-2 over the stretch with a .938 save percentage.
The win helps set up an important stretch run for the Panthers, who play their next three games against Southeast Division opponents, including a rematch against the Capitals. When all is said and done, these two teams will meet up three more times.