The stakes in the Washington Capitals’ meeting with the Florida Panthers tonight are high. With a win, Washington moves into first place in the Southeast Division, third in the Eastern Conference. With a loss, the Capitals, who enter the contest three points out of eighth, will remain out of the playoff picture in ninth place as Florida widens the gap between the two teams.

No one needs to remind Coach Dale Hunter how critical this game is.

“It’s like a playoff game tonight,” Hunter said. “If you want to call a regular season [game] a playoff game, tonight is the night.”

It’s a busy night on the NHL schedule as teams continue to jockey for position in the Eastern Conference standings.

The tight race in the East is a large part of why Brooks Laich, who suffered a left knee injury Sunday, wants to be back in the lineup even if he’s not completely healthy. Contests against division foes are doubly important, given that only one Southeast Division team might make the playoffs.

“We can’t miss any games; we can’t miss any points,” Laich said. “You can’t predict the future but I think it’s going to be tight coming down to the last week of the season. We have to have a sense of urgency in every game, whether it’s a Monday nighter in Carolina or a Saturday night at home. We need to play the same way, and we have to have points every night.”

Laich and the Capitals are trying to muster a sense of urgency these days. They haven’t won consecutive games since a three-game streak Jan. 11-15, and the players know they need to kick things up a notch.

“It could be better, I think,” Karl Alzner said when asked what he thought of the Capitals’ effort at this point in the season. “By that, I mean we could be winning all these games and making sure that we’re bearing down. There’s still times where we let up or don’t come out as strong as we need to. Maybe that clicks in the further we go when it gets down to the last 20 games, 15 games. Right now, we could do a bit better of a job so we can try to secure something earlier on.”