The Florida Panthers haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 1999-2000, which was also the last time they were in first place this late in the season.
But the plastic rats are flying again as things are beginning to look up for the revamped team, which holds a five-point lead on the Capitals entering tonight’s Southeast Division showdown at BankAtlantic Center. Washington has won the past four Southeast crowns.
Florida, in fact, could be considered among the biggest surprises in the NHL. (They’re probably a close second behind Western Conference-leading Minnesota.) And, interestingly, they’re doing so with the help of a few former Capitals.
Tomas Fleischmann is the Panthers’ second-leading scorer with 12 goals and 15 assists in 26 games. The winger, who is playing on a line with Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg, is also a plus-13. As a group, the line is a plus-41.
“I’m playing with great guys on the same line,” said Fleischmann, who is averaging 19:28 of ice time per game and plays on the first team power play. “We always find the best option and it’s just working right now.”
Fleischmann played for the Capitals from 2005 until he was dealt to Colorado in November 2010 for defenseman Scott Hannan. In July, the Panthers signed Fleischmann to a four-year, $18 million unrestricted free agent contract.
In goal, the Panthers are getting consistently strong play from goaltender Jose Theodore, who played in Washington from 2008-2010. He spent last season in Minnesota before signing a two-year, $3 million contract with Florida in July.
Theodore is 10-5-3 and boasts an impressive .924 save percentage and 2.28 goals against average. The 35-year-old is 4-1-1 in his last six starts.
Theodore did not play Saturday in San Jose – a 5-3 win in San Jose – and his availability for tonight’s game is a bit of a mystery. He did not take the morning skate and first-year Coach Kevin Dineen did not address the media.
Another former Capital, Matt Bradley, has missed the past nine games with an upper-body injury and won’t play tonight. The fourth-line winger played in Washington from 2005-2011 before signing a two-year deal in South Florida in July. Bradley has a goal and an assist in 17 games this season.
Asked how it feels to be on another team fielding questions about being in first place in the Southeast, Fleischmann joked, “Maybe it’s the other side for you guys.
“But I’m still in first.”
More on tonight’s game:
— Vokoun denied on-ice homecoming; Neuvirth to start
— Semin’s status unclear | Hamrlik out again
— On Hockey: Caps’ goalies need to do their part