Though the Florida Panthers are limping down the final stretch of the regular season, they still remain close to securing their first division title and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
The Washington Capitals can only blame themselves if their run of four straight postseason appearances comes to an end.
Needing one point to secure a playoff berth, the Panthers try to avoid a fifth consecutive loss both overall and in Washington on Thursday night.
Mired in a 1-2-5 stretch and coming off a 5-4 overtime home loss to Winnipeg on Tuesday, Florida (37-25-18) remains collectively upbeat knowing it has a four-point lead over second-place Washington in the Southeast Division. With a point either Thursday or at home versus Carolina on Saturday, the Panthers will end the NHL's longest active playoff drought.
The Panthers, who haven't dropped five in a row since March 19-31, 2011, could still miss the postseason entirely if they fail to earn a point in the final two games and Washington (40-32-8) and Buffalo each win their last two. The Sabres and Capitals both have 88 points, but Washington currently owns the tiebreaker and the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"We haven't made it easy on ourselves all year. It looks like we're following that trend," said Panthers forward Stephen Weiss, who has 56 points on the season but only one in his last five games. "It sets up for a good one in Washington."
After failing to hold a 3-0 lead Tuesday against the Jets, the Panthers face a major challenge in the nation's capital, where they have been outscored 15-4 during a four-game skid and 7-0 in two trips this season.
"At the end of the day, we've always felt that any kind of success goes through Washington," coach Kevin Dineen told the Panthers' official website. "That's respect for their history and the talent level that they have.
"Now it's sitting right there that for us to have success, we have to go into their building and play well."
The Capitals have won the Southeast each of the last four seasons, but are focused on simply reaching the playoffs in 2011-12.
Washington needs to win both Thursday and Saturday at the conference-leading New York Rangers to be assured a playoff berth. The Capitals also can win the division if they win out and the Panthers lose their last two contests in regulation.
"My belief is that we're going to be in the playoffs," forward Brooks Laich told the Capitals' official website.
Trying for a third consecutive victory, Washington fell 4-2 at Tampa Bay on Tuesday.
"We're fighting for our playoff lives, so it's not that hard to bounce back," said forward Jason Chimera, who had a goal against the Lightning. "It means a lot playing for something this time of year. You want to play in the playoffs. Ask any player what is the worst day. It's sitting home watching the first day of playoffs. You want to be in those playoffs. You want to be in the hot seat."
Alexander Semin, who has two goals and six assists in his last seven games, hopes to help the Capitals keep the pressure on Florida. He has two goals and three assists in four games against the Panthers this season.
Florida's Tomas Fleischmann had a goal and an assist Tuesday, giving him five goals and four assists in his last eight contests. However, he's been held without a point in three career games at Washington.
Former Panther Tomas Vokoun was in net for both of Washington's shutout home victories over his former team, but is out with a lower-body injury. Michal Neuvirth, 0-2-0 with a 4.07 goals-against average versus Florida this season, gets the start.
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