SUNRISE, Fla. -- Before the season began for the Florida Panthers, who lost goaltender Tomas Vokoun to free agency in July, the question was, "Who's going to be in goal?" Critics had little faith in backup netminder Scott Clemmensen, and the arrival of Jose Theodore, No. 2 behind Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota last year, was not looked upon as a brilliant move by Florida general manager Dale Tallon.
But other than a couple of blowout losses and the typical weak goals that crop up here and there, goaltending has rarely been an issue in the Panthers' season that has included 124 days atop the Southeast Division. Theodore quickly emerged as the club's No. 1 goalie, posting a 22-15-10 mark and a 2.38 GAA. Clemmensen was solid as a backup, especially while Theodore was injured, going 13-6-6 with a 2.63.
The problem for the Panthers most of the year? Scoring. And more particularly when they scored.
The Panthers' first line was the talk of the NHL in the season's first third. The trio of Tomas Fleischmann-Stephen Weiss-Kris Versteeg torched opposing goalies early, but their numbers tapered off as teams wised up and put its top pairing out there to defend them and keyed on the first line.
Before Florida's 5-4 overtime loss to Winnipeg on Tuesday night, Florida had watched left winger Fleischmann, the club's Masterton Trophy nominee, become the Cats' leading scorer. Versteeg, a Jets killer this season now with seven goals in five games after scoring against Winnipeg, had been stuck on 22 goals, having gone 15 games without a tally since scoring on Long Island Feb. 12. That's 0-for-March for Steeger, though he did miss eight March games with an injury.
Weiss, who celebrated his 29th birthday Tuesday, hasn't been spectacular either in his last 11 games. The former first-round selection (No. 4 overall) has seen his goal scoring go down -- 19 goals in 78 games -- but he had three of them plus five assists in his previous 10 games.
When a team's top line gets shut down and can't break through, it's up to the secondary scorers to step up. Sean Bergenheim has been streaky at times and has 17 goals in 60 games, and his tireless work ethic is impressive. But for the most part, a reliable scorer off the second, third or fourth lines hasn't stepped up. Also, Florida is 24-2-12 when scoring first, so it plays much better ahead than from behind, primarily due to its offensive limitations.
But if the Panthers wind up in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2000 as the Southeast Division champion by earning just one point at Washington on Thursday or home against Carolina on Saturday, or if the Caps lose to the Rangers on the last day of the season, the key for any esnuing postseason success will be someone emerging from the lower lines and finding the back of the goal.
And they may as well score the game's first one while they're at it.
By Bill Whitehead Florida Panthers Credentialed Correspondent Hockey Columnist Twitter: @BillWhiteheadFL Email: BillWhiteheadFL@hotmail.com
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