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As Richard Zednik continues his recovery from a gruesome injury, the Florida Panthers are locked in one of the NHL's tightest division races.
The Panthers will try to avoid their third consecutive loss against league scoring leader Alexander Ovechkin and the rest of the Washington Capitals when they meet on Friday night at the BankAtlantic Center.
Zednik's neck was slashed by teammate Olli Jokinen's skate in the third period of Sunday's 5-3 loss in Buffalo. The blade nearly severed his carotid artery, and the injury required emergency surgery. Zednik, though, has shown improvement and could be discharged by Saturday.
The Panthers (26-27-6) took the ice for the first time since Zednik's injury on Wednesday, falling 2-1 in overtime to Montreal. Steve Montador scored for Florida, which lost for the third time in four games.
"I think we responded well," Jokinen said. "Zed's spirit is still here. And we're going to do all we can for him and his family."
With 58 points, the Panthers are in fourth place in the Southeast - two points ahead of last-place Tampa Bay, but only four points behind division-leading Carolina. Washington (27-25-6) and Atlanta are tied for second with 60 points apiece.
"It's a huge game," Panthers coach Jacques Martin said of facing Washington. "I think when you look at it, we're two points behind them. It's really a four-point game."
Florida gave up just five goals while winning three one-goal decisions from Washington in a 13-day span in November. Since then, the Panthers have surrendered seven goals in two losses the Caps, including a 5-3 road defeat on Jan. 19.
The division winner will likely earn the No. 2 or 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and could be the only Southeast team to reach the postseason. The Capitals and Thrashers are tied for 10th in the conference.
Jokinen knows how Florida can win the division.
"Win 23 out of 23," he said with a smile. "(We've) just got to find a way to win the next day, that's all. That's all we can worry about now. We can't control how other teams are playing. We can control how we play."
The Capitals lost 3-2 in overtime in Atlanta on Wednesday, but have earned a point in four of five games, going 3-1-1 over that span. Ovechkin, who leads the league with 48 goals and 78 points, scored with 1:21 left to force the extra sesssion.
Ovechkin has nine goals in his last seven games, but coach Bruce Boudreau would like to see the rest of his offense producing more.
"The bottom line is somebody besides Alex Ovechkin's line has got to score some goals," he told the Capitals' official Web site. "We need secondary scoring, and I think they're all capable of doing it. I don't care what the numbers are. I've seen them score."
Ovechkin has 11 goals and 15 assists in 21 career games against Florida. He's notched a goal and assist in each of Washington's two wins over Florida in 2007-08.
"When you look at their team, they've got the one line, and Ovechkin has been their key guy," Martin said. "You look at last night, he scores late in the game for them to pick up a point. So he's really a key player that we have to neutralize."