BY GEORGE RICHARDS
Although he no doubt had fun cruising up and down the Intracoastal Waterway and hanging out on Duval Street during the All-Star break, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen was ready to get “back to business” on Wednesday night.
So, too, was his team.
Thanks to a pair of long-range goals from Mikael Samuelsson that would have impressed the Heat's Mike Miller, the Panthers downed rival Washington 4-2 at BankAtlantic Center.
With the win, the Panthers regained sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division and jumped from ninth place in the Eastern Conference all the back back to third. Washington picked up one of an available four points on its Sunshine State swing after losing in overtime to the Lightning on Tuesday.
Florida leads the Capitals by one in the division with three more meetings, including one Tuesday in Washington, remaining this season.
“We’ve got to get rust — whatever the word is when you take a good break – off,'' Dineen said before the game. “I think it’s a great way to mentally rejuvenate yourself, but sometimes if you watched games [Tuesday] night, there were a lot of plays that weren’t happening. We have to make sure with the extra day of practice that we had that we come out with lots of energy and good execution.”
The Panthers did exactly that and had plenty of good chances against Washington backup goalie Michael Neuvirth – who played in place of former Panthers netminder Tomas Vokoun.
Florida didn't convert in the opening period but out-chanced the Capitals and got a fluke goal early in the second when Samuelsson whipped in a shot from almost 90 feet out that somehow find a way past Neuvirth.
Samuelsson's shot, estimated by the league at 88 feet, came from, well, way downtown.
The Capitals evened things later in the period when Brooks Laich made a nice move down low and snapped one over Scott Clemmensen's shoulder top corner. Clemmensen, Florida's new temporary starter with Jose Theodore's knee acting up, made 26 saves.
Clemmensen is now 7-2-5 and 4-1-3 since Theodore initially injured his knee during the second period of a game against Montreal on Dec. 31.
Samuelsson picked up his second of the night on a power play chance in the third, making it 2-1 on a shot from 51 feet away.
Florida got some much-needed breathing room midway through the third when a loose puck hit Stephen Weiss just before he barreled into Neuvirth. The puck caromed over Neuvirth's head and into the net. Although the play was ruled no-goal on the ice, the call was reversed after a lengthy review at Hockey Central in Toronto and Florida took a 3-1 lead.
Washington made it a one-goal affair with 2:21 left on a nice goal from John Carlson, only Shawn Matthias all but ended it with an empty net goal with 52.8 seconds remaining.
SURGERY FOR UPSHALL
The Panthers lost winger Scottie Upshall for approximately four to six weeks as the right winger is scheduled for sports hernia surgery on Thursday. Upshall was hurt Nov. 10 and worked to get back into the lineup without the surgery.
Upshall returned on Jan. 20 in Chicago and also played last week against Philadelphia. If Upshall is to miss the rest of the season – as is very possible – he will have scored a goal with two assists in 17 games after signing a four-year deal worth $3.5 million per season (second highest paid forward on team) on July 1.
Upshall will have the surgery Thursday in Philadelphia by noted sports hernia specialist Dr. William Meyers. Dineen missed nine weeks when Meyers performed the surgery on him back in the day. Dineen says he was the first NHL player Meyer performed the operation on.
“He’s a big part of what our team and we haven’t seen a lot of Scottie Upshall this year,'' Dineen said. “I think sometimes you move on and we didn’t see him for such a long time, that’s the nature of it.
“I don’t want him coming back and limping through this season. I think that it’s important that if we get Scottie in the lineup, we have to get the real deal instead of what we’ve seen for the majority of this year, which is just not good enough to help us get where we are.”
() Upshall wasn't the only Florida player to miss Wednesday's game as Theodore is again hampered by a knee injury. Florida recalled Brian Foster from AHL San Antonio to replace Theodore on the roster and back up Clemmensen. If Theodore isn't ready to go by this weekend when Florida plays back-to-back games against Winnipeg and Tampa Bay, Foster could make his NHL debut.
“We’re going to give him a couple more days,'' Dineen said of Theodore. “His knee is not feeling as strong as we want it and we’ll give him a couple of days to heal that up.''
() Jack Skille, out for the second straight game because of the shoulder he injured Dec. 20, may return to practice Wednesday and could play this weekend. Skille missed 13 games with the injury but returned for games against Chicago and Winnipeg before the All-Star break.
Leading scorer Kris Versteeg also missed the game because of illness.