Capitals Back on Track With Win Over Panthers

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

SUNRISE, Fla., March 17 -- One night after arguably their worst performance of the season, the Washington Capitals played with considerably more energy and effort against the Florida Panthers.

It was still well short of their best, but José Theodore and his teammates were good enough to defeat the surprisingly uninspired Panthers, 3-0, in front of a sparse crowd at BankAtlantic Center, where Florida failed to record a single shot on goal in the third period.

Theodore earned his second shutout of the season and Brooks Laich, Viktor Kozlov and Mike Green supplied the offense as the Capitals captured their fourth win in five games and, perhaps more important, erased the memory of Monday's 5-1 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers.

"When it's a 1-0 or 2-0 game, you're never bored," said Theodore, who earned the 28th shutout of his career and a measure of redemption after being pulled in Atlanta. "If it was a 5-0 game in the third period, maybe I'm bored. But tonight I was just really focused."

After a scoreless first period, Laich scored the decisive goal -- his third in six games -- and Theodore, the defense and the team's penalty-kill unit took it from there. Theodore made 11 saves in the second period, the Capitals killed off four Panthers power plays in the final 40 minutes and the team's six defensemen helped Washington hold an opponent without a shot in a period for the third time in franchise history.

"I've never been involved in a game where that's happened," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It's a great testament to our players. They proved they can do it when they want to do it. It was a total team win and we got that secondary scoring."

Kozlov notched the Capitals' second goal at 2 minutes 36 seconds of the third period. He cut to the middle of the ice on a rush and fired a shot past Tomas Vokoun's blocker pad. It was the first goal in 12 games for Kozlov, who had been demoted to the third line where he skated with Laich and Michael Nylander.

Green's 25th goal went into an empty net with 1:27 remaining to send the Capitals to Tampa for Thursday's meeting with the Lightning feeling good.

"We knew we had to bounce back after last night -- that was horrible," said defenseman John Erskine, who doubled his point production with a pair of assists. "We stuck to the system and we got a big win."

Green added: "Maybe we came out a little slow at the start, but we stuck to our system. When you do that, you're going to win games. That's the biggest difference between last night and tonight."

It was a long night for Alex Ovechkin, who remained stuck on 49 goals for the second straight game. The reigning most valuable player faced top defenseman Jay Bouwmeester on most shifts and went long stretches without touching the puck. Ovechkin registered four shots in 19:04 of ice time, which was his lowest total in 11 games and was the result of the Capitals having only one power play.

The win swelled Washington's lead in the Southeast Division to a commanding 15 points over Carolina with 10 games remaining in the regular season. The Panthers, meantime, have lost four in a row in their push to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999-2000.

Neither team was particularly sharp in the first period, but the game's pace increased in the second. Laich scored short-handed when Erskine's clearing attempt found him at center ice. Laich knocked down the pass, burst into the zone and beat Vokoun beneath his blocker with a perfectly placed shot that kissed the post and put the visitors ahead 1-0 at 5:46.

The Capitals took three consecutive penalties in the second period. But the penalty kill, though, was much improved from its effort in Atlanta, where the unit yielded goals on three of the four short-handed situations it faced. Led by Tom Poti, David Steckel and Boyd Gordon, the penalty kill was more aggressive, especially at the top of the zone, and shut down Florida's 26th-ranked power play, which failed to score on one opportunity in the third period.

As good as the defense was, Theodore might have been the Capitals' best player. Boudreau also gave Theodore a vote of confidence by turning to his No. 1 goalie after pulling him Monday, and Theodore rewarded his coach for the faith he showed in him.

"When you play almost every game, the good thing is you can bounce back right away," Theodore said. "Tonight is a great example. Yesterday was a totally different team than we saw tonight. It was not my best game [against the Thrashers] but tonight I was ready for the challenge."

Capitals Notes: Defenseman Brian Pothier was a healthy scratch one night after returning from a 14-month layoff because of post-concussion syndrome. Center Keith Aucoin was also a healthy scratch. Donald Brashear missed his fourth game with a sprained knee.

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