It's another battle for first between Capitals, Panthers
PANTHERS (24-16-11) at CAPITALS (27-21-4)
TV: FS-F, CSN-MA
Florida 4-3-3; Washington 4-4-2
Fourth of six meetings between these Southeast Division rivals. The home team has yet to lose this season. Tomas Vokoun blanked his former team with a 20-save performance as the Capitals won 3-0 on Oct. 18, but the Panthers have responded. Stephen Weiss
scored twice and added an assist in their 5-4 victory on Dec. 5, while most recently Mikael Samuelsson
had a pair of goals and Weiss notched the game-winner in a 4-2 triumph on Feb. 1.
As entertaining as the first half of the season series has been, the final three games between these teams could go a long way toward deciding which teams wins the Southeast Division -- and perhaps which team ends up missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs. At the moment, the Capitals are ninth in the Eastern Conference despite being just a point behind the Panthers for first in the division.
Ever since edging Washington in its first game out of the All-Star break, Florida has been back in control of the Southeast, but their positioning remains precarious entering this four-point affair. The Panthers are coming off a loss to another division foe, albeit one that's farther back in the standings. Sean Bergenheim
was responsible for a goal and an assist against his old club, but that wasn't nearly enough to counteract a Martin St. Louis hat trick, which culminated with an empty-netter to seal the Panthers' 6-3 defeat.
"It's a hard League," said Samuelsson, who also scored for Florida along with Tomas Fleischmann
. "You have to fight for every spot, for every inch there. I shouldn't say it's a like a playoff, but it's getting close to it. And teams are playing like it. You have to fight for every shift."
Aiming for a second straight win over the defending Stanley Cup champions in a nationally-televised Sunday matinee, Washington couldn't muster the same level of offense against Tim Thomas that it had 12 days earlier against his backup Tuukka Rask. The Capitals were already in a 3-0 hole by the time Marcus Johansson scored with 7:56 remaining, and although they peppered Thomas with 36 total shots, that turned out to be their lone goal in a 4-1 loss.
"We got a lot of chances, but Thomas came up big," coach Dale Hunter said. "He had a big game. A goalie like that can make a difference. Especially in the first period, they got a couple on us. He is a good goalie and he got the better of us tonight."
Who's Hot: Kris Versteeg
(3-3-6) and Samuelsson (4-1-5) have four-game points streaks active for the Panthers. Bergenheim has 2 goals and 2 assists during a three-game points streak. … Brooks Laich has 1 goal and 3 assists over his last four games for the Capitals.
Florida is awaiting goalie Jose Theodore
's return from a knee strain. He hasn't played since Jan. 20. Goalie Jacob Markstrom
(knee), defensemen Ed Jovanovski
(hand) and Dmitry Kulikov
(knee) and forwards Jack Skille
(shoulder), Scottie Upshall
(sports hernia) and Marco Sturm
(knee/groin) are on injured reserve. … Laich left Washington's last game with a sprained knee that could sideline him Tuesday. Defenseman Mike Green (groin) and forward Nicklas Backstrom (head) are on injured reserve.
The Panthers lost in regulation for just the second time this season (18-2-4) when scoring at least three goals. … The Capitals have recorded at least 20 blocked shots in 12 of their last 18 games after doing so just twice in their first 34 games.
Veteran goalie Scott Clemmensen
, who has been the No. 1 in Theodore's absence, talked about the importance of the stretch Florida finds itself in:
"With 31 games left to play, there's still a lot of jockeying and that's why I think that last week and this week and next week are big for us, coming out of the All-Star break to start off the playoff push on the right foot for us," he said. "It's not the be-all, end-all, but they are very important games and especially the games that we are playing in our division … that we're going to be fighting with for the divisional lead."