SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers wanted to show the Washington Capitals Monday night that they were for real.
Stephen Weiss' two goals and an assist helped the Panthers build a 5-1 lead, and Florida held on for an eventual 5-4 victory that extended their Southeast Division lead.
"When you fess up, the truth is we did look at this as a big game for us," said Panthers first-year coach Kevin Dineen. "We looked at it as a test and a team that we aspire to compete with every night. They didn't see our best early in the year and we felt we needed to come out and play a strong game and that was part of the game plan. We certainly did that."
With the victory, the Panthers extended their lead over the second-place Capitals to seven points. Washington has won the division the last four years. The Panthers' margin in the Southeast is the largest of any division leader.
"I've watched the standings from the first game, so every day you're looking at it," said Florida defenseman Brian Campbell, who had three assists. "It puts a little bit of spread between us hopefully. We want to keep climbing the standings. I know everybody talks about division, division, but it's conference. That's the important part – getting up there and keep climbing in the conference. Let's see big goals. That's our jobs in here, we want big goals and it's not just about division."
It was a disappointing loss for the Capitals, but at least new coach Dale Hunter found some solace in the fact his players never gave up.
"We battled, we get back in the third, inches away from tying it up," Hunter said. "The boys showed a lot of character that way."
Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov had a career-high 3 points with a goal and 2 assists for Florida, and Mike Santorelli and Sean Bergenheim had the other goals.
The Panthers, who are 6-2-1 in their last nine games, improved to 15-8-4. It's their best 27-game start since 1999-2000, the last season they made the playoffs. That also was the last time the Panthers were in first place in their division this late in a season.
"This isn't to take anything from the teams we had in the past, but we have a different mind-set here and different attitude as well as a different skill set," said goalie Scott Clemmensen, who stopped 28 shots. "It's been working so far for us. Hopefully, the league and the other teams in the division are going to take notice of us."
Clemmensen, getting the start with Jose Theodore sidelined by the flu, improved to 3-0 on the season. The Panthers have scored 16 goals in his three starts.
Clemmensen also was in net Saturday night when the Panthers recorded a 5-3 victory at San Jose to wrap up a four-game road trip at 2-2. The Panthers stayed overnight in San Jose before flying back to South Florida on Sunday.
"Everyone was coming off a little jet lag yesterday," Clemmensen said, "so hats off to my team for coming out and putting up five goals through the first two periods and giving me that goal support."
Mike Knuble, Cody Eakin, Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera scored for the Capitals (13-12-1), who lost for the third time in four games under Hunter. Defenseman John Carlson had 3 assists. The Capitals have lost 9 of 12 overall.
"It's not acceptable to play hockey for 20 minutes and not the other 40," Laich said. "You judge yourself by your results, not your intentions. We're not satisfied at all tonight."
Michal Neuvirth, who got his ninth start of the season instead of former Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun, made 25 saves. Vokoun was in net when the Capitals shut out the Panthers, 3-0, back on Oct. 18.
The Panthers went 3-for-6 on the power play, this coming after a 2-for-4 performance in Saturday night's 5-3 victory at San Jose. The Panthers had been 4-for-45 in their 10 games before that.
Washington, meanwhile, had killed 18 of their last 19 penalties and had given up only two goals in each of Hunter's first three games.
"That was too many penalties and they jumped on us," Hunter said. "When the refs call it, it doesn't matter if it's right or wrong in my eyes – it's their eyes that count."
Weiss and Santorelli scored 13 seconds apart in the first period to give Florida a quick 2-0 lead. It was the Panthers' fastest two-goal sequence since April 11, 2009.
Weiss opened the scoring at 6:50 with Mathieu Perreault in the penalty box for high-sticking. Weiss shot the puck toward the net from the right faceoff circle and it bounced in off of Capitals defenseman Dennis Wideman.
Santorelli made it 2-0 at 7:03 when his wrist shot from a sharp angle found its way between Neuvirth's right arm and his body.
Kulikov increased the lead to 3-0 at 16:31 with Florida's second power-play goal. With Troy Brouwer off for a delay of game, Kulikov blasted a one-timer from outside the right faceoff circle low to the far side.
"He's been great all season for us," Campbell said. "Nothing surprises me. As soon as I saw him from day one, I was like, wow, this kid is a good D-man and he's going to be great for us for a long time."
Knuble got Washington on the scoreboard 40 seconds later when his slap shot from outside the right faceoff circle slipped between Clemmensen's legs.
Bergenheim scored Florida's third power-play goal at 3:41 of the second period. With the Panthers buzzing the net to the left of Neuvirth, Bergenheim went behind the net and scored on a backhand wrap-around.
Weiss made it 5-1 after a beautiful feed from Fleischmann. Fleischmann slightly lost his balance when he deked Wideman to his forehand in the slot and instead of trying a shot from a sharp angle, he slid a diagonal backward pass through three Washington players that Weiss one-timed into an open net.
"Flash said that when he turned and made the pass he was upset because there were three guys in the way and somehow it snuck through," Weiss explained. "I didn't see it until it was almost on my stick. We'll take it."
Eakin made it 5-2 with 20 seconds left in the second when he took a pass from Perreault from behind the net and fired a quick shot that beat Clemmensen low to the stick side.
Laich scored the first goal of the third period at 12:09 when he took a pass from Joel Ward and beat Clemmensen from the slot.
Chimera closed it to 5-4 with 1:44 left in the third period with a shot from the left point.
The Panthers then were able to hold off the Capitals, but not without some anxious moments.
"Yeah, a little tight, sure," Weiss said. "They put the heat on us there. But that makes it even more fun to come down to the last minute there against a good club and we found a way to win. Whether it's 5-1 or 5-4, it's two points."