PANTHERS (37-25-18) at CAPITALS (40-32-8)
TV: FS-F (HD), CSN-MA (HD)
Last 10: Florida 3-2-5; Washington 4-4-2
Season Series: Sixth and final meeting of the season between these Southeast Division rivals who are battling for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals have won three of five, and not only haven't the Panthers won in their two previous trips to Washington this season, they haven't scored a goal.
Big Story: After squandering a golden opportunity Tuesday to not only clinch a playoff berth for the first time in 12 years but win the first division title in franchise history, the Panthers get a chance to take care of business against the team that has won the Southeast each of the past four seasons and remains alive for a fifth straight crown.
Florida needs only a point Thursday, but if Washington wins in regulation things get interesting. In that case it all comes down to Saturday, when the visiting Capitals would be able to win the division with a road victory over the Rangers and a regulation loss by the Panthers at home against the Hurricanes.
Panthers: No one's going to complain if Florida gets the job done, but this is hardly the way the Panthers wanted to enter the playoffs. They've lost four in a row and seven of eight, but maintained their lead over the Capitals by picking up extra-time points in five of those defeats. It looked for all the world Tuesday like a party was ready to start at BankAtlantic Center when Tomas Fleischmann's goal 25 seconds in the second period gave the Panthers a 3-0 edge. After the Jets stormed back with four straight, the home team got new life when Tomas Kopecky scored with 3:53 remaining. But Andrew Ladd's second of the night 3:12 into overtime sent the Panthers to a 5-4 defeat.
"We know we're going in a hornet's nest in Washington," defenseman Ed Jovanovski said, "but we've battled adversity all year, through injuries and tough stretches, and we'll come up with a good game plan and not only get one point but get two."
Capitals: This game is about much more than simply remaining alive for the division title from Washington's standpoint. As much as the Capitals would love to claim the No. 3 seed and have home ice in the first round, it's far from a guarantee they will even make the playoffs if they don't win their final two games. That's because a 4-2 loss to the Lightning on Monday combined with an overtime win by the Sabres on Tuesday has the teams tied for eighth with 88 points. The Caps have the tiebreaker with more non-shootout wins and control their own destiny, but that could change if they lose to the Panthers.
"We're fighting for our playoff lives, so it's not that hard to bounce back," said Jason Chimera, who scored his 20th goal in Monday's defeat. "It means a lot playing for something this time of year. You want to play in the playoffs. Ask any player what's the worst day -- it's sitting home watching playoffs the first day of playoffs. You want to be in those playoffs. You want to be in the hot seat."
Who's Hot: Fleischmann has scored in consecutive games for the Panthers and 5 goals in his last seven. ... Alexander Semin has come to life for the Capitals, registering 2 goals and 6 assists in his last seven games.
Injury Report: Florida forwards Matt Bradley (upper body) and Jack Skille (shoulder) are sidelined. ... Washington defenseman John Erskine (lower body) and goalie Tomas Vokoun (groin) are out of the lineup.
Stat Pack: Stephen Weiss, who celebrated his 29th birthday Tuesday, leads the Panthers in the season series with 3 goals, including both their game-winners. ... Chimera has 3 goals to pace the Capitals.
Puck Drop: Here's a wrinkle when it comes to Thursday's goaltending battle -- Vokoun, who has all three Washington wins against Florida this season while posting an 0.33 goals-against average and .988 save percentage, is unavailable. Michal Neuvirth, 0-2 with a 4.07 GAA and .881 save percentage, figures to get the call.
On the other side, Scott Clemmensen has both wins for the Panthers, but a 3.33 GAA and .881 save percentage to show for his three starts against the Capitals. Jose Theodore lost his only start against his former team, but stopped 41 of 43 shots in the process.