Game 26: Change takes time, Caps battle first place Panthers, rats etc.

Three games into the Dale Hunter era, the Capitals are 1-2-0. But it's easy to look too hard at the numbers and not the on-ice product so far in Hunter's tenure. 

The Caps have been forechecking more aggressively than they ever did under former coach Bruce Boudreau. They have worked on Hunter's system that involves limiting odd-man rushes and using the walls to create them the other way. The goaltending has stabilized, the defense is improving. 

These are all good things. All things to build on going forward rather than fretting over the record. Regardless, Hunter's system will take time for the Caps to adjust and adapt to. 

Look no further than recent coaches' success when replacing another mid-season, its happened quite a bit recently, and often requires a grace period. 

In Philadelphia when Peter Laviolette replaced John Stevens in December of 2009, the Flyers were a dismal 2-7-1 in his first 10 games, but went on to a deep playoff run and came within two wins of winning a Cup. 

In Pittsburgh in 2008, the Penguins were struggling and in danger of missing out on the playoffs after 57 games. They decided to replace coach Michel Therrien with Dan Bylsma, who went on go 18–3–4 down the stretch, which amounted to 40 points—the second most of any coach in NHL history through their first 25 games. The Pens made the playoffs, and oh by the way, went on to win the Cup. 

While these are not the norm, these are examples of how a team can be jump-started by a coaching change mid-season, something that the Capitals and GM George McPhee certainly feel is possible for this squad in 2011-2012. 

Enough with that tangent, time to move on to tonight's game. 

The Caps will be road dogs at Florida tonight when the face the first-place Panthers in South Florida. 

Yep, those Panthers are back, folks. 

 

The 'Cats lead the Southeast Division, once owned by the Capitals, with 32 points. Washington trails them by five points and can cut into that deficit tonight. 

Not only is it a big matchup between the up-and-coming team against the former big boys of the division, it would figure to mark the return of Caps goalie Tomas Vokoun to Florida. 

He'll be there, but he won't start. Instead, Michal Neuvirth will start for the Caps for the second-straight game, he got the win over Ottawa on Saturday. Vokoun played for the Panthers for four seasons and won 101 games for the team. 

The Caps took the Panthers down 3-0 in the first meeting, an Oct. 18 contest at Verizon Center. Since then, the two teams have gone in opposite directions. Washington is 8-11-1 since that game while the Panthers have gone 11-6-4 over the same stretch. 

Florida's offensive is spearheaded by their top line of ex-Cap Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg. All three rank in the top 15 in the NHL in scoring.

The Panthers are also getting help from the backline this season, defenseman Brian Campbell, acquired via trade this offseason from Chicago, is third among NHL defenseman in scoring and veteran Jason Garrison leads all NHL blueliners with eight goals. 

Solid goaltending from ex-Cap Jose Theodore has turned the Panthers into a bonafide playoff contender this year, the veteran is  4-1-1 with a 1.83 GAA and a .935 save pct. in his last six games, and will could play in his 600th NHL game if he gets the nod in goal tonight. 

Florida will have to try to contain Alex Ovechkin, who has 20 goals in 39 career games against the Panthers in his career. Ovechkin hasn't scored in his past four games while posting a couple of helpers. 

One player the Caps don't have to worry about is winger Jason Chimera, who is enjoying a career year so far for the team. Chimera leads the team with 10 goals and is also a +8 with 16 points on the season. 

Puck drops at 7:30 pm, win or lose, let's hope for some rat trick's

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