CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - For the biggest game of the season, the Florida Panthers chose Scott Clemmensen over Jose Theodore.
The next game is even bigger. So is the Panthers' goaltender dilemma.
Florida hosts its first playoff game in 12 years on Friday night, facing New Jersey in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series. And Panthers coach Kevin Dineen does not plan to divulge his starter in net until that day, giving him plenty of time to weigh his options.
"I'll give it a gut-check," Dineen said. "I haven't talked to my belly yet."
Theodore started 51 games for the Panthers this season, but the team lost each of his last seven starts—four of those in either overtime games or shootouts. Clemmensen got the nod in the regular-season finale against Carolina on Saturday night and made 35 saves to help Florida clinch the Southeast Division title and home-ice advantage for the first round.
On Monday, as Theodore and Clemmensen sat side-by-side at their lockers inside the Panthers' practice facility, a swarm of reporters surrounded Theodore. The scrum extended so far that Clemmensen had to step aside just to change out of his gear.
Neither will step aside before Friday, of course, meaning Dineen has a tough call ahead.
"Obviously you want to play every game," Clemmensen said. "Every player wants to. I play the hand that I'm dealt and make the most of it and that's all you can do. Then you put the decision in their hands. And when you play well, you make a case for yourself and you give them confidence in you."
Over the last month, Clemmensen's numbers would suggest he has an edge.
In four starts and one brief relief appearance, Clemmensen's goals-against-average is 1.19 and he's stopped 96 per cent of the shots he's faced. Theodore's GAA over that span is 2.27 in 12 starts, saving 92 per cent of shots coming his way.
"Our goalies have been excellent for the most part, and that makes for a quality choice when we do get going," Dineen said.
No such dilemma exists in the opposing locker room. Martin Brodeur swept the Panthers out of the playoffs when they last appeared in 2000, and he'll be in net for the Devils again on Friday night.
Clemmensen faced the Devils once this season, stopping 27 of 28 shots in a 3-1 win on Feb. 11. Theodore played twice against New Jersey, making 54 saves on 59 shots as the Panthers won once in regulation and lost the other in a shootout.
"I've got a really exciting decision to make," Dineen said. "I don't look at it as a burden. I look at it as something that I can't go wrong either way."
If there's one area where Theodore holds a huge edge over Clemmensen, it's playoff experience.
Theodore has 47 career playoff starts, the last of those coming April 17, 2010 for Washington against one of his former teams, the Montreal Canadiens. Theodore allowed goals on the only two shots he faced in Game 2 of that series, got pulled for Semyon Varlamov and never returned to the ice for another second of that seven-game matchup eventually won by the Canadiens.
"I know he's a heck of a goalie that's had playoff success and I know he's played some quality hockey for us this year," Dineen said, speaking of Theodore. "And Clem's done a heck of a job for us for the last three weeks. So exciting time in our net, to say the least."
Clemmensen has one playoff appearance, lasting all of 6 minutes and 53 seconds—he replaced Brodeur late in the third period of a game against Carolina on May 6, 2006, after Brodeur allowed six goals to match the most he's ever given up in a playoff contest.
Theodore said waiting to get the word from Dineen won't affect him this week. Dineen tended to handle the who's-going-to-start issue the same all season, rarely tipping his hand much before game day.
"To be honest, it doesn't change the way you prepare," Theodore said. "It doesn't change anything. After a full year like this, you're kind of able to predict a little bit of who's going to play because we know kind of the way the pattern was going all year."
Except as of now, it's still anyone's guess.
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