It looks like the Washington Capitals
' power play is clicking again. That could be bad news for their first-round opponent in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Mike Knuble and Jason Chimera did the damage Wednesday night, and the Capitals moved to the brink of clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference with a 5-2 victory against the Florida Panthers at the Verizon Center.
Washington has won four straight games and fail to repeat as Eastern Conference champs only if it loses in regulation to Florida on Saturday and if the Philadelphia Flyers win their last two games.
There is one category in which the Capitals won't repeat. Last season, they were far and away the best power play team in the League, amassing 79 goals with the extra man. This season, they have a mysteriously mediocre 46 -- despite the team's solid play over the second half of the season. But five have come in the last three games, their best spurt since around Halloween.
"That's what we're accustomed to, like, if we didn't take a year off," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "The great thing about our team last year was that we could put that fear, where they didn't want to play their physical game because our power play was good. If we could ever get that to work on a consistent basis -- like it was in Toronto last night; like it was here tonight -- then, I think, it gives you another element."
Sean Collins, called up over the weekend because of injuries to several Washington defensemen, padded the lead in the second period with his second career NHL goal. Matt Hendricks made it 4-0 in the third period, and Alex Ovechkin scored his 301st NHL goal into an empty net against a Panthers team that has lost nine straight.
Ovechkin also had a pair of assists, giving him 8 points in four games. Semyon Varlamov, competing with Michal Neuvirth for the right to start the playoff opener next week, made 31 saves as the Capitals wrapped up their regular-season home schedule with a 25-8-8 record.
While the No. 1 seed would be a nice feather in the Caps' cap, Washington cares more about making up for its postseason disappointments of recent seasons -- and it showed in the lineup Boudreau put on the ice. Jason Arnott and Scott Hannan were given the night off, as was Alexander Semin, who has been nursing an injury. The coach wants everyone healthy and fresh for next week.
"A week from now, the real show starts," center Brooks Laich said.
If anything, Wednesday's power-play goals were almost too easy -- Knuble and Chimera simply skated to the net and waited for the puck, unfettered by any Panthers defenseman. Laich skated down the left side before supplying the pass to Knuble just 1:20 into the game, while Nicklas Backstrom fed Chimera from behind the net in the final minute of the period.
"You knew we were going to score goals in the power play; it's just a matter of time," Chimera said, "so we've just got to keep it rolling."
After that, the Capitals were left to practice the new defensive philosophy they adopted midway through the season, clamping down on the Panthers until the game's final minutes despite missing injured regular defensemen Mike Green, Tom Poti and Dennis Wideman. David Booth scored on a power play with 6:16 left in the game, and Mike Santorelli cut the deficit to two with 1:31 remaining and the goaltender pulled.
Those late goals didn't mean much to Panthers coach Peter DeBoer, who said Ryan Carter suffered a concussion in the third period. Carter was hurt when he was knocked into the boards by Capitals defenseman John Erskine.
"You can look for silver linings. You know what? We're losing games, that's the bottom line," DeBoer said. "So I don't have a lot of good to say."
Material from wire services and team media was used in this report