Southeast: Theodore helping Panthers secure hold on first place

By Cory Lavalette

Photo: The play of Florida Panthers goaltender Jose Theodore is one of the main reasons that the club has been able to maintain a lead in the Southeast race (courtesy of

JC Salas/Icon SMI)

The Washington Capitals probably figured that three wins this past week would catapult them into first place, but the Florida Panthers were equally good in getting seven of a possible eight points to maintain their lead in the Southeast.

Washington was led by its captain, but Florida’s goaltender trumped him in earning the Southeast’s first star for the week of March 9-15.

First Star: Jose Theodore, G, Florida Panthers
With the race for the Southeast lead tight, the Panthers rode Theodore to three wins and a shootout loss to push their division lead to three points. Theodore stopped 117 of 122 shots (.959 save percentage) on the week, registering a shutout against Carolina on March 11 and holding red-hot Pittsburgh — now winners of 10 straight — to just one goal in a 2-1 shootout loss last Friday. The other four goals he allowed were inconsequential – the Panthers routed both Toronto and Boston in their other two wins.

Second Star: Alexander Ovechkin, RW, Washington Capitals
The Capitals captain didn’t put up huge numbers the past week — his two goals and one assist in three games were statistically less impressive than the three goals and an assist that both Florida’s Marcel Goc and Carolina’s Jeff Skinner put up in the same time frame— but he was big when it mattered most. Ovechkin was the catalyst in Washington’s come-from-behind, 5-4 shootout win over the Islanders, starting the rally from three goals down with a goal late in the second period. He then tied the game in the third and helped get the extra point in the shootout, scoring on Evgeni Nabokov prior to Matt Hendricks notching the game-winner. Coach Dale Hunter credited the team’s leadership for the win, a good sign for a captain that has sometimes been criticized in that role. With three wins on the week, the Capitals created some breathing room in the race for eighth in the Eastern Conference, plus kept pace with Florida.

Third Star: Cam Ward, G, Carolina Hurricanes
Like Ovechkin, Ward’s numbers aren’t overly impressive at first glance. Yes, he stopped 131 of 138 shots in four starts for a .949 save percentage, however he went just 2-2 on the week. But the combination of three road games in four, plus a trio of match-ups against division leaders highlights what Ward was up against. He stopped 36 of 38 shots in a win over Tampa Bay, then kept Carolina in the game in a 2-0 shutout loss at Florida that ended with a Panthers empty-net goal. He then bounced back from a 4-2 loss at the Rangers to shutout the Presidents’ Trophy frontrunners, the St. Louis Blues, for his 200th career win.

Southeast Division Notes

Florida Panthers – The Panthers have a chance to help the Capitals this weekend when they host ninth-place Buffalo on Saturday. The Sabres are currently three points behind Washington with one less game to play on the season. The Panthers also reassigned defenseman Tyson Strachan to the AHL, and could get back several players — Dmiitry Kulikov, Scottie Upshall and Kris Versteeg are all close to returning — in the near future.

Winnipeg Jets
With only 12 games remaining, the Jets have a big game at home Friday against the Capitals. Winnipeg trails Washington by four points for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, plus has to leap past Buffalo — one point ahead of the Jets — if they want to reach the postseason. They also host Carolina on Sunday.

Washington Capitals
On top of their crucial game at Winnipeg Friday, the Capitals face another tough road game in Chicago on Sunday. In the midst of a four-game win streak, the Capitals could either really open up their lead on the Sabres and Jets this weekend — plus challenge the Panthers for the Southeast lead — or come back to the pack.