It's the best time of year!
By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE, Fla. -- After the up-and-down performance by Florida starting goaltender Jose Theodore, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen decided to have a heart-to-heart moment with his No. 1 goalie during the club's pivotal game in Washington Thursday night. That moment has led to serious consideration by some about how the Stanley Cup quarterfinal round will open.
To the surprise of many come Saturday night in Florida's biggest game of the year, Dineen opted to start backup Scott Clemmensen against the Carolina Hurricanes, a club he had not faced this season. Meanwhile, Theodore was an impressive 4-1 against the Southeast Division rivals, with the only loss last month a night after Clemmensen won in Philadelphia.
Clemmensen's performance Saturday in front of 19,087 fans at BankAtlantic Center -- all waiting desperately to see the Cats clinch the franchise's first divisional crown -- was clutch. The Iowa native stopped 34 shots, including all 11 in a second period when Carolina tilted the ice in its favor, and led Florida defensively in a 4-1 win that will result in a banner being hoisted to BAC rafters in six months.
So the question is this: Do the Florida Panthers have a goaltending controversy as it prepares for its playoff series with the New Jersey Devils?
"When it comes to my goalies, I think I keep things fairly tight to the vest," Dineen said after the division-clinching win. "Clem made a real statement with his game tonight as well as in the last month. Those two have made it a very tough decision to see who will get the start in Game 1."
A strong case could be made for the 34-year-old Clemmensen to start in goal Friday night at home against the Devils, his former club for whom he starred in the 2008-2009 season when Martin Brodeur was injured. In his third year with Florida, Clemmensen is 14-6-6 with a 2.57 GAA and a .913 save percentage after being unable to open the season because of a knee injury.
Clemmensen has authored some big wins and boosted the Panthers to overtime often. He blanked Dallas, 6-0, in the most lopsided win on Nov. 15. His win over Vancouver Jan. 9, a 2-1 decision, was a statement game against one of the league's best. Most importantly, he won three of his last four starts (3-0-1, .962) -- at Philadelphia and Montreal, plus Saturday -- and even gained a key point for Florida in a Sunday matinee in Detroit. Those are all crucial contributions to a team that clinched the Southeast by two points.
He made his strongest showing when the team needed it most -- when Theodore went down with a knee injury at the turn of the year. Clemmensen, 1-0 against New Jersey, proceeded to go 7-3-3 in the next five weeks, and he helped Florida get points in 20 of his 26 starts in its worst-to-first, 94-point campaign.
"He made some big saves when he had to," defenseman Ed Jovanovski said of Clemmensen's 34-save effort against Carolina. "I think our goaltender has to be our best player on most nights."
That best player between the pipes most of the year, though, has been Theodore, which is why he will likely lead the Panthers onto the ice Friday for Florida's first playoff game in 12 years.
Theodore, concluding the first season of a two-year deal, is 22-16-11 with a 2.46 and a .917. His body of work this season stands for itself and has exceeded the expectations of most critics. If he's healthy, it's unlikely No. 60 (1-0-1 against the Devils this year) won't be facing No. 30 -- the legendary Brodeur -- for the third time.
But the margin of error right now for Theodore is rather small -- like Jose himself -- so he had better come up big on Friday.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
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