The Florida Panthers were Southeast Division champions last year, giving their famished fans a much-needed respite from years of mismanagement and ownership turnover. They got there in a bit of a Faustian way, handing out multi-year deals to multiple mid-tier free agents who definitely helped but also come with a bit of a price tag and cap hit hangover.
This year is a completely different story, but it's not because those free agents are a year older. Rather, most of their key players are hurt, and their goaltending has been awful.
The big loss was key center and pending unrestricted free agent Stephen Weiss, who wasn't himself and was finally shut down to have wrist surgery. It doesn't help that Scottie Upshall has only appeared in eight games and Sean Bergenheim (GoGo Gordon groin relapse) has been out since the lockout. Recently, Kris Versteeg (knee) was lost for the rest of the season. Meanwhile, defensemen Dmitry Kulikov (hand), Mike Weaver (lower body), and Ed Jovanovski have been out too. (Jovanovsky returns tonight though.)
The goaltenders have not bailed them out: Jose Theodore has an .893 save percentage (.901 even strength), Scott Clemensen is at .858 and .868, respectively, and blue chip prospect Jacob Markstrom is at .891 and .904 in seven games.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln thought the play was just fine, thanks.
So yes, this game and this two-game Florida swing is a symbolic must-win for the Islanders' playoff aspirations. There are just 21 games left in the season, they're three points and two teams out of eighth on the low side of the playoff bubble, and this is another chance for the 12-12-3 Isles to get over that proverbial NHL quasi-.500 mark.
This is their chance to break some miserable runs in south Floriday, too: The Isles are 15-3-3 in the past 21 meetings with the Panthers and 9-0-2 in the past 11 at the [whatever the hell it's called these days alphabet soup] Center.
They'll do it without Michael Grabner and David Ullstrom, both now on IR. (On that note, here's one view that has the Atlantic Division least affected by injuries, while the Southeast has been the hardest hit in 2013.)
Clemmensen will start for the Cats.
Leave your picks for the First Islanders Goal in this thread.