Capitals take Southeast lead

Capitals take Southeast lead
February 8, 2012, 2:30 am
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Let's set the record straight.

Tuesday night's game between the Capitals and Florida Panthers was not a playoff game.

It may have looked like one and felt like one, but the Caps still need to be one point better than the Panthers in their final 29 games before they can stake that claim.

Still, the Caps' 4-0 win in front of a sellout crowd of 18,506 at the Verizon Center served as a clear and emphatic message that if the Capitals receive star performances from their star players, they can do some serious damage in the post-season.

"It was a very important game for us," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said after scoring two goals in the win. "We just want to make a huge gap between us and different teams in our division."

For now, that gap is just one point.

Mathieu Perreault scored 13 seconds into the game, Jason Chimera scored 62 seconds into the second period and Ovechkin enjoyed his first two-goal game since New Years Eve as the Caps hurdled over the Panthers and into first place atop the Southeast Division. With the loss the Panthers dropped from third in the Eastern Conference to ninth.

"We don't want to be a bubble team," Capitals goaltender Tomas Vokoun said after recording his second straight shutout against his former team. "We definitely want to win our division and it's not going to be easy. Florida is a good team. We know we're in a dogfight."

Vokoun had one of his strongest games of the season, stopping 42 shots, many of them from close range in a surprisingly wide open game.

"If you look at the first 30 minutes, Tomas made about a half dozen excellent saves," Caps center Brooks Laich said. "We did some good things but the difference maker was Tomas."

Before the game Dale Hunter told anyone who would listen that the playoffs had begun for his team. Chimera agreed the pre-game locker room felt that way.

"You could see the intensity in guys' eyes," Chimera said. "It was pretty quiet in here, which is unusual for a regular season game. Guys really wanted it. We needed it, we got it and we want to keep rolling."

The fun started early when Alex Semin cut in front of a clearing attempt by Panthers goaltender Scott Clemmensen along the boards and shoveled the puck to Chimera. The veteran left wing found Perreault in the slot for his ninth goal of the season and a 1-0 lead just 13 ticks into the game.

Ovechkin made it 2-0 at the 9:21 mark when he took a pass from Dennis Wideman at the offensive blue line, rumbled in alone on Clemmensen and beat him between the pads for his 21st goal of the season.

Just like that the Caps had two goals on just three shots, but with rookie Brian Foster on the bench, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen was sticking with Clemmensen.

Clemmensen kept the Cats in the game when he got his blocker on a Marcus Johansson 2-on-1 with Ovechkin, then stoned Chimera on the doorstep on a pass from Perreault.

The Caps broke it open at the start of the second period when, with Wideman in the box for slashing, Chimera scored the Capitals first shorthanded goal under Hunter.

Chimera, who had the Caps' only other shorthanded goal this season, picked up a loose puck along the defensive left wing boards and shoveled it ahead to Matt Hendricks, who dropped for John Carlson, who found Chimera with a return pass. Chimera showed incredible patience to draw Clemmensen out of the net and deposit his 15th goal of the season into the open net.

The goal was Chimeras second in the past 20 games.

Vokoun kept his 48th career shutout alive with spectacular saves on Shawn Matthias and Mikael Samuelsson to run his season record to 22-13-1.

When Ovechkin netted his second goal of the game 11:47 into the second period, whipping a wicked, rising wrist shot over Clemmensens right shoulder, Dineen called a timeout and tore into his players.

But it was clear the Capitals would be skating away with the division lead.

"We've got them twice more," Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell said, "but it's not about just Washington. It's about us winning games. If we get going here, we'll find ourselves in a playoff spot. And if we don't we're going to be out of it."