If the Panthers hope to party like it’s the 1999-2000 season -- the last time they reached the playoffs -- they’ll continue to ride their goaltending duo.
Starter Jose Theodore (22-5-10) holds a 2.38 goals-against-average with a .920 save percentage in 49 games. Backup Scott Clemmensen (13-6-6) made 31 saves in Sunday’s shootout loss to Detroit, but moved to 2-0-1 in his last three games with a .959 save percentage.
Over the past few weeks, Clemmensen started two other games, winning in both Philadelphia and Montreal.
“Our goaltending’s just been really reliable, it’s been solid, it’s been a difference maker,” coach Kevin Dineen said.
“They are two guys that really mesh well together. There’s chemistry between them. I think Clem understands that he’s not always getting the start two, three times a week.
“And I haven’t given him easy games. He’s really done a fabulous job for us. That is not an easy thing to do. And I think that helps keep Jose sharp as well. So it’s really been a good balance for us this year.”
Following Sunday’s game against the Red Wings, Clemmensen said that now is the time of the year to be playing one’s best hockey.
“The whole team’s into it, such a fun time to be playing right now,” Clemmensen said. “Everyone’s expecting to make the playoffs, you want to be there and contributing as opposed to years past when we were out of it and playing for pride or yourself. It’s always fun to be a part of what’s going on right now in South Florida and the team.”
And through it all, the pair has had to be at top form of late. Over the past seven games, the Panthers have scored just 10 goals.
Despite this span, Florida earned at least one point for the 11th time in its last 13 games (6-2-5) in Sunday’s shootout loss to Detroit, allowing two (non-shootout) goals or less in all but three of those contests.
“It’s been huge for us all year,” defenseman Ed Jovanovski said of the goaltending. “I said it in Montreal, I think Jose has been our MVP this year, and when Clemmy has the opportunity to come in, he’s played great for us. We’re going to need them on most nights to be our best players, and on most nights they have.”
Added forward Stephen Weiss after Sunday’s game: “We’ve definitely got to score. Our goalies are too good and playing too well for us not to be scoring some goals. We’re going to win a lot more games.”
Florida (37-25-17) hosts Winnipeg Tuesday night and a victory would clinch a spot in the postseason for the first time in 10 years, which is an NHL record. If that happens and Washington loses to Tampa Bay on Monday, the Panthers would also have their first division title in franchise history.
On the season, Florida has been in first place for 122 days, including 37 straight.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, this is the latest the Panthers have ever been in first place in their division, previously sitting in the top spot through 68 games on March 10, 2000.
Going into Monday, the Panthers hold a three-point lead over Washington in the Southeast Division with three games left.
Florida visits Washington on Thursday and doesn't own a tiebreaker against the Capitals.
“It’s always a big responsibility as a goalie, and the last month has been really important for everybody to really play their best hockey because if you look at the standings, it was really close and we were able to get some big points,” Theodore said.
“At this time of year, every save is big. You’re not going to win games 6-0 or 6-1, and right now every save could be early in the first period or the third, but every save is big because it’s going to be those 1-1, 2-1 games. As a goalie you have to make sure you make those key saves at the right time to give your team a chance to win, and that’s what we’ve been doing lately showing character and getting points.”
Last year as a member of the Minnesota Wild, Theodore said he and his teammates were out of contention with 10 to 15 games left in the season.
But GM Dale Tallon brought in new guys such as Theodore and Jovanovski over the offseason. Still, many didn’t forecast the Panthers to be in the position they find themselves in.
“We were and are on a mission since day one, and we’ve got one big week ahead of us,” Theodore said.
“You play the game to be in the playoffs, and this year was a good chance for a lot of players and me too to be part of something. Be a leader on this team, and a lot of guys stepped up. We didn’t clinch anything yet, we’re on the right track, obviously, and it feels good to be part of something.”
TUESDAY: JETS AT PANTHERS
When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FS Florida/WQAM-560
The game: Florida has won three of the first five games in the season series and would clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Jets. Winnipeg had briefly led the division earlier this year but couldn't sustain it and have been eliminated from postseason consideration. The Jets have currently lost four of five.