Within a 48-hour period, two Southeast Division teams – the Carolina Hurricanes and the Florida Panthers – both learned that their starting goaltenders, Cam Ward and Jose Theodore, would be out for extended periods because of injuries.
The teams played a weekend series and Carolina swept both games, but the cost was high – Ward going out with a third-degree sprain of his knee after getting run over in Sunday’s game. Theodore was lost on Saturday and it means, in Florida’s case, that the Jacob Markstrom era could start in earnest now.
The Panthers’ goalie of the future getting a chance to play in the here-and-now because of Theodore’s injury and Scott Clemmenson’s inconsistent play (a 4.31 GAA, only Buffalo’s Jhonas Enroth at 4.75 is higher). Florida was dead last in the NHL in goals-against average anyway, so the change in goal could actually represent an upgrade.
Statistically, Ward’s backup in Carolina, Dan Ellis, has had the better numbers this year – a 2.39 GAA as opposed to Ward’s 2.93 GAA prior to Sunday’s game – and Ellis has had enough experience as a relief man to come in and do the job short-term. But the Hurricanes had high hopes for this season – to win the division after three consecutive years out of the playoffs (and five of the past six), and Ward’s presence in goal had a lot to do with that.
Ward is often talked about as a candidate for Canada’s 2014 men’s Olympic team and while the Hurricanes say his injury will keep him out for six-to-eight weeks, if that forecast proves correct it would essentially leave him on the sidelines for the remainder of the regular season. Even if Ward has recovered by then (no sure thing), the question for coach Kirk Muller becomes then becomes, can you reasonably switch back to your No. 1 man at the start of the playoffs, after two months of inactivity?
Tough call and about the only thing you can say for sure is that Southeast Division games could suddenly become the most entertaining and high-scoring in the NHL, given that all five were in the bottom half of the league defensively already, even before the injuries started.
In Tampa, Anders Lindback‘s GAA has inched up to 3.27 as the Lightning struggle. Washington’s Braden Holtby is at 3.01 but that’s actually an improvement of late – he’s knocked it down from 3.87 in a matter of four weeks. The only healthy starter under 3.00 is, of all people, the Winnipeg Jets’ Ondrej Pavelec, at 2.87. In the ultra-tight Eastern Conference standings, the Jets’ best hope of making the playoffs may be to win the Southeast in what will surely be their last year in that geographically remote division. As long as Pavelec can avoid the injury bug knocking down the rest of his peers, the Jets’ chances suddenly look far brighter than they did 48 hours ago.