If Florida Panthers fans were told at the beginning of the year that this team of new faces would have a legitimate chance to win the Southeast Division and break the seemingly endless playoff drought they would have been thrilled. However, mention that whether or not they do so will likely come down to their goaltending and you likely would have heard a collective Astro the dog style ruh roh in South Florida. Yet, as the Panthers begin to head down the stretch run of the season, it seems that the fate of their team will likely come down to the performance of Scott Clemmensen and Jose Theodore.
As Panthers fans undoubtedly know by now, the big questions at the beginning of the year were: can all these new faces possibly find chemistry in such a short time? And will the goaltending tandem be able to make up for the loss of Tomas Vokoun? The Panthers were able to answer the first question by getting off to one of their best starts in years. Newcomers like Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, and Brian Campbell not only fit in well, but also helped elevate the games of holdovers including Stephen Weiss and Jason Garrison, who leads the league in goals scored by defenseman.
During the first half of the season, Jose Theodore answered the second question by outplaying the departed Vokoun, posting a better goals against average (2.50 to 2.60) and better save percentage (.916 to .915). Unfortunately for the Panthers, Theodore has continued to be bothered by a knee injury and "will be out for awhile" via Harvey Fialkov. In his absence, the Cats will have to rely on steady backup Scott Clemmensen.
The good news for the Panthers is Clemmensen has been in this situation before. During the 2008-2009 season, Clemmensen was the backup for some guy named Martin Brodeur who went down with an injury and was lost for the majority of the season. It was during this time that Clemmensen made a name for himself, starting in 40 games over a stretch from November to February of that season and winning 25 of those games. At the time of Brodeur's injury, it appeared that the season was lost for the Devils, but propelled by the spectacular play of Clemmensen, the Devils not only made the playoffs but also won the Atlantic Division.
Since Theodore went down, Clemmensen has started in nine games and posted a 5-1-3 record during that stretch. To put these games into perspective, Clemmensen has given up 19 goals over that period, while the Panthers have only scored 20. Yet, the Panthers managed to grab 13 of a possible 18 points from those games, something that goals scored to goals allowed ratio wouldn't seem to indicate. The possibility that Clemmensen could play in the majority of games in the second half carries even more importance because after the Panthers play Tampa Bay on Saturday they still have nine games left against division opponents, after just having faced a crucial stretch of three straight games against division foes Washington, Winnipeg, and Tampa Bay.
The reason that goaltending carries such an importance for this Panthers team (besides the obvious) lies in other troubling signs and statistics. As of Friday night, the Panthers currently sit at 21st overall in goals scored per game at 2.5. Although Weiss, Versteeg, and Fleischmann seem to be emerging from their slump and secondary scoring has begun to emerge from players like Shawn Matthias and Mikael Samuelsson, it is wishful thinking to believe the Panthers will start pouring in goals like the Boston Bruins who are averaging 3.47 goals per game. The Panthers are also without top six defensemen Ed Jovanovski and Dmitry Kulikov and are only 23rd overall on the penalty kill, adding greater importance to the play of Clemmensen.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the Panthers have a real chance to win their division or still make the playoffs as a lower seed. The good news for the Panthers is that according to Elias Sports Bureau, they have the easiest remaining schedule in the NHL. The better news for the Panthers might be that they have just the right guy to exploit this, a goaltender that's thrived in this situation before. Yet, this is by no means a sure thing. Clemmensen has been shaky at times, including a game against the Rangers where he gave up three goals on 14 shots.
So with their season riding on his play, will the Panthers get the Scott Clemmensen of 2008-2009 or the one that showed up that night against the Rangers? Most nights it seems as if it could go either way. Florida Panthers fans may not have seen this coming, but their season likely will come down to the play of a journeyman backup goalie. The Panthers can only hope he has some of that 08-09 magic left.