Under normal circumstances, January is a brutal proving ground for NHL playoff wannabes. But this season, a year interrupted by a two-week break for the Winter Olympics, the reality is even more severe. Any team, such as our Florida Panthers, hanging around the fringes of the postseason tree needs a winning record in this midwinter month if it wants to survive the inevitable Vancouver 2010 hangover not to mention those perennial late-schedule injuries and slumps.
So, this Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., when the Panthers face Alex Ovechkin and his league-leading Washington Capitals, consider it an early test of whether Florida is for real. Are the Cats legitimate contenders or lame chumps? Can Florida overcome the weak goaltending of Vokoun and Clemmensen? Will the concussed David Booth ever return? Both fans and doubters should head to the BankAtlantic Center to have their questions half-answered. A bit of dire foreshadowing: The last battle between these two Southeast Division rivals ended with a 6-2 Panthers beatdown. Tickets cost $10 to $225.
Wed., Jan. 13, 7:30 p.m., 2010