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First-place Panthers excited for big game vs. Caps

Monday, 12.05.2011 / 2:02 PM / NHL Insider

By Alain Poupart - NHL.com Correspondent

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First-place Panthers excited for big game vs. Caps
In first place this late in the season for the first time since March of 2000, the Panthers look to distance themselves from the four-time defending Southeast champ Capitals on Monday.
SUNRISE, Fla. -- The upstart Florida Panthers have a chance to make a statement when they play host to the Washington Capitals on Monday night. More importantly, they're looking at a great opportunity to increase their lead atop the Southeast Division.

But for the most part, Panthers players are looking at this as just another in a series of big games.

"I think every game is a big game," center Stephen Weiss said. "We just played three huge games on the road. It's a big game, sure, but they all are right now in the position that we're in. We're looking forward to it."

Weiss has been with the Panthers longer than any other player on the roster, and he finds himself on a first-place team for the first time since he came into the NHL in 2002.

Fact is, Florida hasn't held first place this late in a season since March of 2000.

The Capitals, on the other hand, have won the last four Southeast Division titles.

While it's important for Washington, which will be playing its fourth game under new coach Dale Hunter, it's clearly a big December game for the Panthers.

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"The last time the Panthers played the Capitals in a meaningful game, oh boy, that's a long time ago," said Panthers radio play-by-play voice Randy Moller, a 13-year NHL player who has been on the team's broadcast team for the last 14 years.

The Panthers will enter the game with a 14-8-4 record, their best 26-game start since 1999-2000, which also was the last time they made the playoffs.

A year ago at this time, the Panthers were 11-14-0 and already trailed Washington by 16 points.

But this is a radically different Panthers team.

"You want to do your best to maintain position in the standings, and anytime you play divisional games they're that much more magnified," said veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski, one of the many newcomers on the Florida roster. "As a group, we've talked about it, we understand where we are in the standings, we understand where they are. We have to find a way to get our legs early and push forward throughout the game."

Monday night's home game sandwiches four- and three-game road trips for the Panthers. They went 2-2 last week, winning at Carolina and San Jose and losing at Tampa Bay and Los Angeles.

The Capitals, meanwhile, have dropped seven of their last 10 and are coming off their first victory under Hunter, a 3-2 overtime decision over Ottawa on Saturday night.

Hunter, who replaced Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28, lost his first two games against St. Louis and Pittsburgh by identical 2-1 scores.

While the Caps (13-11-1) have been involved in many big games over the past few years, this one is important because they don't want to fall further behind the Panthers in the standings.

"We've got to close the gap," forward Brooks Laich said. "They've played very well and had a great start to the season. We haven't done so, especially the last 15 games. We got a good win on Saturday night at home and now we've got to start stringing wins together and close this gap."

The teams have met once already this season, with the Capitals winning 3-0 in Washington in a game where they outshot the Panthers 34-21.

In addition to increasing their division lead, the Panthers also want to atone for what they say was one of their poorest performances of the season.

"It's big," said forward Kris Versteeg, who was acquired from Philadelphia in an offseason trade. "These guys have been a division leader for so long, and they know what it takes to win and do it in the regular season. We're going to have our hands full tonight. They found some new energy with a new coach.

"We're going to have to not worry about them, not worry about any of that, we're going to have to go out and play our game, really try and smother them and play with our energy and the way we can."
Quote of the Day

We're understanding what's bringing us success. We have a talented hockey club when everyone's committed to doing the right things and doing their job.

— Islanders captain John Tavares after a 4-1 win against the Penguins tied the teams atop the Metropolitan Division standings
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