By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 11:47 PM
SUNRISE, FLA. - It took 48 extra seconds, but the Washington Capitals managed to capture two points against the Florida Panthers on Sunday evening and push themselves forward in the standings to take sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division for the first time since Dec. 29.
After allowing the Panthers to tie the game on a five-on-three with less than three minutes remaining in regulation and force overtime, it was Alexander Semin who snapped a shot past Scott Clemmensen to give the Capitals a 3-2 victory heading into a showdown for top billing in the division Monday at Tampa Bay.
Washington (36-20-10) carries 82 points, one more than the Lightning, into the final meeting between the two teams this season. With 16 games remaining in the regular season, the Capitals have gained the inside track on taking one of the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Including the win at BankAtlantic Center over the Panthers, each of the Capitals' last seven victories have been decided by one goal as Washington's confidence in close games continues to grow. Michal Neuvirth made 32 saves against Florida (26-31-9) while Nicklas Backstrom and Boyd Gordon recorded Washington's first two goals before Semin sealed a fourth consecutive triumph that marked the Capitals' first four-game winning streak since Nov. 24 to Dec. 1.
"Sometimes it's good to play the close games," said Neuvirth, who is 6-2-0 in his past eight starts. "It's a little bit intense and I don't mind playing in intense games. We've won four in a row and it's a good start. I think we're getting something together here, and tomorrow's going to be another great challenge for us and we've got to be ready."
In the third period, everything appeared ripe for a Capitals regulation victory. Washington stuck to its basic principles of getting the puck deep, working the play down low and taking care of the play in its own zone first and foremost. Holding on to a 2-1 lead courtesy of Gordon's goal in the second period, the Capitals limited the Panthers to only three shots through the first 16 minutes 17 seconds of the final period until they ran into penalty trouble.
John Erskine was called for tripping, and 40 seconds into that penalty kill, former Panthers defenseman Dennis Wideman was whistled for slashing to give Florida a five-on-three. David Booth corralled a rebound in front on the two-man advantage and tied the game with 2:36 remaining in regulation, erasing what had been solid play for the bulk of the period. Although the untimely penalties prohibited the Capitals from ending the contest in regulation, the unflappable nature Washington displays when up by a single goal or tied is a trend it wants to continue.
"Until we got the two minors, I didn't think they had too many chances in the third period," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We were understanding what we had to do, and I thought we played a pretty solid third. We weren't really trying to score there."
Boudreau went on to say that because the Capitals have grown accustomed to scoring an average of only 2.64 goals per game, the entire roster knows to "batten down the hatches" early to prevent the need for a large rally. Florida did strike first,though, after Wideman's shot was blocked in the first period and the puck popped out to create an odd-man rush for the Panthers, whose Bill Thomas scored on the two-on-one with roughly five minutes remaining in the period.
Backstrom evened the game at 1 a little more than two minutes later when he fired a one-timer past Clemmensen, who finished with 22 saves, off of a smooth feed from Alex Ovechkin in the corner.
It was in the second, though, when the Capitals began to truly take over the tenor of the game. After killing off an early penalty to Tyler Sloan, Washington put out a line of Ovechkin, Jason Arnott and Semin to start a shift that pinned the Panthers in their own zone for more than a minute. The work down low wouldn't result in a goal then, but the Capitals appeared to feed off the energy as things got chippier between the two teams.
Near the midway point of the second period, John Carlson took a shot from the top of the left faceoff circle with a crowd of players in front of the Panthers' goal. Gordon found the rebound and backhanded it into an open net with Clemmensen caught out of position. The goal snapped a 27-game scoring drought for Gordon and signaled the opportunity for the Capitals to clamp down. Even though extra time was needed for victory, Washington's fortitude in close games is something on which the players pride themselves.
"I think last year we weren't overly great in situations like that," Gordon said. "We're not scoring as much, so [with] our defense there's a little more emphasis on it and you don't want to give that lead up. Our margin for error's maybe not as big as it was last year, but if that's what it takes to win, that's what we've got to do."