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First-place Capitals visit Florida

by Corey Masisak /

CAPITALS (18-17-2) at PANTHERS (12-19-6)


Last 10: Washington 7-2-1; Florida 5-5-0

Season series: The Washington Capitals have won the first three games between the two teams and six straight overall in the series, outscoring the Florida Panthers 28-9 in that span. Both contests at Verizon Center were blowouts, but Florida did earn a point in the only game at BB&T Center -- though the Panthers did blow a late two-goal lead before losing in overtime.

Big story: The Capitals have won their way into first place in the Southeast Division, but one loss can send a team in that spot from holding the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference to outside the top eight -- just ask the Winnipeg Jets about that.

Team Scope:

Capitals: After a terrible 2-8-1 start, the Capitals woke up Friday morning in a playoff position for the first time all season. They have gone 16-9-1 since, and climbed to the top of the mediocre Southeast Division by beating the New York Islanders 2-1 in a shootout on Thursday. Their hold on the top spot is tenuous -- four teams are bunched within four points, and none would be in the top eight of the conference at this point if not for the division winner earning a top-three seed.

Still, the Capitals are rolling and their stars are leading the way. Alex Ovechkin is back among the League's goal-scoring leaders, Nicklas Backstrom has a team-leading 30 assists and oft-injured Mike Green is back producing important offense from the blue line.

The schedule has been light on top teams but tough on travel/fatigue -- this contest and the one Sunday in Tampa Bay complete a stretch of 17 games in 30 days, including 11 on the road. The finishing kick includes more time to rest, but also six of the final 10 contests are against teams currently in the top six in the East.

Panthers: Florida's season has been a mess because of injuries and regression after a surprising division title in 2011-12, but the missing veterans has allowed the Panthers to give playing time to some key young players who will be part of the next potential division winner. Another of those players will make his NHL debut Saturday as center Nick Bjugstad joined the team earlier this week.

Bjugstad is huge (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) and skilled, and could form a dynamic 1-2 punch with Jonathan Huberdeau in the middle for the Panthers. He'll likely play on a line with another 2010 first-round pick, Quinton Howden, as the Panthers try for a season-high fourth consecutive victory.

Who's hot: Green has five goals in Washington's past four games and now leads the League in even-strength goals by a defenseman with seven despite missing 13 games because of injury. … Florida's Shawn Matthias also has five goals in his past four games and has four more in 39 games (14) than he's had in any of his previous four NHL seasons with at least 50 games played.

Injury report: Defenseman Tom Poti (back) is out for the Capitals, while forward Brooks Laich (lower body) missed the end of the game Thursday but is likely to play. … No other team in the NHL has been decimated by injury like the Panthers this season. Two-thirds of the team's top line, Stephen Weiss (wrist) and Kris Versteeg (knee), are out for the season. Several other key players have been missing for long stretches and are currently out. Forward Jack Skille (upper body) is expected to return against the Capitals.

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