WASHINGTON -- It may be only one game, and when these two teams meet again 10 days from now the circumstances are likely to be quite similar.
But for one night, the Washington Capitals played like the team expected to be kings of the Southeast Division, soundly defeating the Florida Panthers, 4-0, at Verizon Center to reclaim control of the top spot and a position inside the top eight of the Eastern Conference.
"We just had our focus on getting the win," said Brooks Laich, who played despite leaving the previous game with a knee injury. "They are a good team and by no means does this mean the division is wrapped up. We are not arrogant in that sense. It was just an important hockey game for us."
Washington has won this division each of the past four seasons, and in quite comfortable fashion in the past three campaigns. After adding a handful of veterans, including goaltender Tomas Vokoun, the Capitals were heavy favorites to collect another banner before the season began.
The Capitals have struggled at times to score and especially to obtain victories away from this arena, but with a dominant version of Alex Ovechkin rarely seen of late and Vokoun stifling his former team for a second time this season in this building, Washington looked the part of schoolyard bully not ready to relinquish its place in the Southeast hierarchy.
Ovechkin scored twice and Vokoun made 42 saves as he shut out the Panthers for the second time in as many starts against them since leaving South Florida for the nation's capital.
"We don't want to kind of be a bubble team and just sit there," Vokoun said. "It's not going to be easy. Every game is going to be tough. We definitely want to win our division and that is what we set our goal as."
Florida has led the Southeast for much of this season. The Panthers also have not participated in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2000, and considering the way these two teams have vacillated between the No. 3 spot in the East, the one guaranteed to the division winner, and the fringes of the top eight, they may need to topple the Capitals in order to end that postseason drought.
The Panthers have not been trending in the right direction, though they did claim a 4-2 victory against the Ovechkin-less Capitals just after the All-Star break. Florida has lost 16 of its past 24 games, and the Panthers now sit in ninth place in the conference. They do have four games in hand on eighth-place Ottawa and only trail the Senators by two points.
"We've got to stay positive," Florida defenseman Brian Campbell said. "We have to up our level, especially tonight. Some nights we're there but other nights we're not."
Mathieu Perreault put the Capitals in front 13 seconds into the contest. Alexander Semin kept the puck in the Florida zone and got it to Jason Chimera, who sent a pass from behind the net to Perreault between the hash marks for his ninth goal of the season.
Perreault was on the second line in part because Brooks Laich injured his left knee in the previous contest against Boston. He's also seeing increased minutes because Nicklas Backstrom. He now has six goals in the past 10 games.
Ovechkin made it a 2-0 advantage on the power play at 9:21 of the opening period. The Panthers aggressively harassed the Capitals and made it difficult to gain entry into the offensive zone, but once they did Dennis Wideman flicked a backhanded pass to Ovechkin and he was able to skate in alone on net.
He could have hit Troy Brouwer for a one-timer, but Ovechkin ripped a shot through goaltender Scott Clemmensen's legs.
"This is when our team is at its best," Perreault said. "When Alex is going, this team is going. Obviously, he is our best player and we need him to be flying like that more often."
The Panthers created some chances near the end of the first period, but Washington struck again early in the second. Florida started the period on the power play, but Chimera redirected a shot from John Carlson and then tucked home the rebound 61 seconds into the second.
Chimera is now tied with Brouwer for the second-most goals on the Capitals behind Ovechkin, but that was only his second tally in his past 20 games.
"It was a couple times, obviously, getting scored on so quickly at the start of the game [and to start the second] is tough but part of being a good team is being able to battle back and forgetting whether you score or get scored against -- you've got to play the same way," Panthers forward Matt Bradley said.
Ovechkin made it a four-goal lead at 11:47 of the middle period. He lost the puck along the left wall, but Florida's Sean Bergenheim also coughed it up as he braced for a check from Brouwer.
Washington's captain collected the puck and skated toward the middle of the ice before snapping a wrist shot from above the circles that beat Clemmensen in the top-left corner of the net for Ovechkin's 22nd goal of the season.
"We jumped on them early and that changed the game a bit when we got two quick goals," Washington coach Dale Hunter said. "They had to play a different game and it ended up in our advantage.
"It is always better winning. We knew what was on the line tonight. We had to win some of these four-point games. They are playoff games and we're battling with Florida. That's our team that we're battling with other teams around us. These two points mean a lot."