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Caps Close Out Campaign vs. Cats

Caps carry a four-game winning streak into season finale as they aim to go into the playoffs on a high note.

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / Monumental Sports Network

April 9 vs. Florida Panthers at Verizon Center

Time: 7:00 p.m. 

TV: CSN

Radio: 104.7 FM, 1500 AM and Capitals Radio 24/7

Florida Panthers 34-36-11

Washington Capitals 55-18-8

Washington finishes off its 82-game regular season schedule on Sunday night at Verizon Center when it entertains the Florida Panthers in what amounts to a pre-playoff tune-up for the Capitals and the end of the season for the Panthers.

With nothing at stake for either side, Sunday's game amounts to an exhibition game. But the Capitals are on a pretty good roll right now, and they'd like to keep that going with the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs now on the immediate horizon. After their 3-1 win over the Bruins in Boston on Saturday afternoon in their final road game of the 2016-17 season, the Capitals have now won four straight games and they are 11-1-1 in their last 13 games. 

The Bruins could have ensured they did not have to face Washington with a win over the Capitals on Saturday, but the B's never led and rarely threatened. Philipp Grubauer needed to make only 21 saves to earn his 13th win of the season.

"These games can be tough," said Caps defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk afterwards, "and we still have one more to go. We're focused on that. But we knew that [the Bruins] had something at stake tonight, too. And we just made sure that we came out and we continued what we were doing. I think that's the most important thing. 

"I thought we played a pretty complete game all around. They can frustrate you with their system in the neutral zone, but I think we did a really good job of finally get past that and putting pucks behind them. In the second period, we wore them down." 

With Shattenkirk supplying the game-winner, the Caps scored twice late in the second to break a 1-1 tie and take a two-goal lead into the third. Washington has now won nine straight games over the Bruins over the last three seasons. 

Each of Washington's last four games came against teams it could face at some point during the postseason, and the Caps will now be facing a non-playoff team for the first time since its last loss, a 6-3 setback to the Coyotes in Arizona on March 31. 

"Well, I think we do [have something to play for]" says Shattenkirk of Sunday's contest against the Panthers. "We have a [playoff] game later on in the week that we have to get ready for. We don't want to have any sort of bad feeling in our locker room going into our first playoff game. So we want to make sure that we're approaching that like it's a meaningful game, like there is something at stake. It can be hard at times for sure, but we don't expect [the Panthers] to just roll over and give us a win."  

Seeking to make consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in 20 years, the Panthers endured a difficult season which will end as 13 of the last 15 seasons have ended for them, with no playoffs. After setting a franchise record with 103 points last season, the Panthers were ousted in the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs, bowing to the New York Islanders. 

Florida went all in on the analytics side of things, rearranging personnel in the front office to reflect that choice and making player acquisition decisions based on analytics as well. 

It hasn't worked out at all.

The Panthers' sea change caused a rift between the front office and coach Gerard Gallant, who was fired and literally left by the side of the road in November when the brass opted to show who was boss. After being named the team's general manager last May, Tom Rowe found himself behind the Florida bench after Gallant's dismissal, another change that proved to be futile. 

Florida spent most of the season dealing with a spate of injuries and spinning its collective wheels as it tried to gain some momentum and climb its way up the ladder of the mediocre Atlantic Division.

In mid-February, the Panthers went on a daunting five-game road trip in which they faced Nashville, the three California teams and St. Louis. Improbably, Florida ran the table on the trip, winning all five games. The Panthers' red hot road run supplied some optimism in South Florida, and the Cats became buyers at the NHL trade deadline, picking up veteran sniper Thomas Vanek from Detroit for the stretch run.

But the team's play on that road trip turned out to be fool's gold. Just as improbably, the Panthers dropped six of their next seven home games in the immediate aftermath of that trip, and their late drive for a playoff berth never really got started. Since returning from that fruitful road trip, the Cats have won consecutive games just once and they've posted a miserable 6-16-1 mark overall. 

The Panthers played their final home game on Saturday night, taking down the Buffalo Sabres by a 3-0 count behind a 30-save effort in goal from James Reimer. Florida's win over the Sabres halted a six-game Panthers losing streak in which the Cats were outscored by a combined total of 28-12.

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