Before his Washington Capitals hosted the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night, Coach Dale Hunter compared this February meeting to a playoff game. While that was an exaggeration, the Capitals responded in kind.
Tomas Vokoun recorded a 42-save shutout and Alex Ovechkin scored a pair of goals to lead Washington to a 4-0 victory over the Panthers in one of its most consistent outings and thorough wins in recent memory.
With the victory the Capitals (28-21-4, 60 points) leapfrogged Florida (24-17-11, 59) for first place in the Southeast Division, which pushes them from ninth place to third in the Eastern Conference. Players were quick to point out that this back-and-forth between the two franchises is far from over, though, with the Panthers having a game in hand on Washington.
“We don’t want to kind of be bubble team and sitting there. It’s not going to be easy. Every game’s going to be tough,” Vokoun said.
“We want to win our division and that’s what we kind of set our goal as,” he continued. “It’s not going to be easy, because you can see Florida’s pretty good team. . . . It’s not going to be easy, but we know now we’re in a dogfight and we’ve got to play every night hard.”
Unlike when these teams met six days earlier, the Capitals came out with intensity that spoke to the importance of the contest. On the first shift of the game, Mathieu Perreault scored to put Washington up 1-0 only 13 seconds in. Jason Chimera had chased the puck behind the goal line and fed it to Perreault in the slot, whose wrister marked the fastest goal to start a game for the Capitals this season.
That forecheck would be a sign of things to come as the Capitals continued to barrel into the offensive zone, pushing Florida players off pucks and trying to test backup netminder Scott Clemmensen (20 saves).
While there were defensive breakdowns on both sides, Washington showed a fire that had been lacking in recent contests. The difference was apparent in Ovechkin, who in his third game back after a three-game suspension discovered the high-octane level that has been absent too often this season. The star left wing created space and opportunities for himself and his linemates throughout the contest, and shot the puck from anywhere.
“It was very important game for us,” Ovechkin said. “Especially when we play against the team who [now] behind us, we just want to make a huge gap between us and different teams in our division.”
Almost 91 / 2 minutes in, Ovechkin made it 2-0 with the Capitals’ first power-play goal in eight games. Ovechkin snuck past the penalty killers, sped down the left wing boards and fired a wrister that beat Clemmensen, snapping an 0-for-17 drought for the team’s power play.
Washington maintained the forechecking pressure as it moved forward but started to commit more turnovers, giving the Panthers opportunities to cut into the two-goal lead.
“Tomas was sharp all night. We might have not had the lead after the first period if it wasn’t for Tomas,” Hunter said. “We gave up breakaways and he came up big for us in the first period. He played a great game and he was one of the main reasons why we won.”
Vokoun looked calm and collected against his former team, coming out far to challenge shooters and cut down on angles, picking up pucks through traffic and containing rebounds. Vokoun’s poise allowed the Capitals to carry the two-goal edge into the second period and build upon it.
He has a shutout in each of his last three appearances in a Capitals-Panthers game — twice for Washington this season and once at the end of the 2010-11 season when he was still a Panther.
At the start of the second, Washington was forced to kill off the remaining 1:40 of a penalty to Dennis Wideman, but the disadvantage didn’t provide much of a hindrance.
A rush up ice caught the Panthers off guard, and Matt Hendricks dropped the puck back for John Carlson. Clemmensen stopped the defenseman’s shot but couldn’t do anything to prevent an unguarded Chimera from swatting the rebound in to make it 3-0 just 61 seconds into the middle period.
With nearly 12 minutes elapsed in the second, Ovechkin made it 4-0 and all but clinched the win with a snap shot above the circles at center ice. The puck seemed to curl in midair, beating Clemmensen high inside the left corner of the net.
While the Capitals would let up, allowing Florida to outshoot them, 32-14, in the final 40 minutes, Vokoun’s flawless performance rendered it irrelevant.
“If you look at the game, you look at the first 30 minutes, Tomas makes a half-dozen excellent saves where the game could have been a lot closer than what it was,” said Brooks Laich, who played 9:28 in a limited role because of the left knee injury he suffered on Sunday. “So there are some areas of our game that we have to clean up. We did some good things, but the difference maker was Tomas.”