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Ovechkin powers Capitals past Panthers

by Alain Poupart

SUNRISE, Fla.Alex Ovechkin's scoring surge continued Saturday night, but the Washington Capitals almost let his work go to waste.

Ovechkin had three goals and an assist to help the Capitals build a 4-0 lead, then had to hold off a three-goal third period by the Florida Panthers to win 4-3 at BB&T Center.

Ovechkin's 12th career hat trick gave him 13 goals in 13 games, and after a slow start he is now tied for second in the NHL with 23 goals, only two behind Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"He brings us energy," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "He's doing what we expect him to do. That's the player we expect out of him, and he's doing a great job of it.

"Maybe it's a confidence thing, who knows. But you can tell he's back to peak form. This is the way he played when he got himself his name. It's fun to watch."

The Panthers didn't enjoy any of it. In fact, they have to be glad that Ovechkin and the Capitals won't be division opponents after this season.

While helping Washington sweep the four-game series against Florida this season by a combined score of 22-8, Ovechkin had six goals and four assists. That gave him 61 points in 47 career games against Florida.

Mike Ribeiro added a goal and an assist and Nicklas Backstrom had three assists for the Capitals, who have beaten Florida seven consecutive times dating back to last season.

"They've had their struggles, too, but for some reason they play us really well or we don't play very well against them," Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell said. "You have to find a way against a team like that and pay more attention to detail.

"I don't know what our record is in their building the last couple of years or even in Panthers history, but I'm sure it's time for them to move on."

The victory kept Washington atop the Southeast Division standings. The Capitals and the Winnipeg Jets, 4-1 winners against the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday, both have 40 points but Washington has two games in hand.

Washington is 7-1-1 in its past nine games.

"We play our way," Ovechkin said. "When everybody gets into the play and everybody plays hard and plays simple, it's going to work, especially with the kind of opportunities we had on the power play."

Holtby made 25 saves but had to survive a third-period rally that saw the Panthers get within a goal with 32.7 seconds left.

The Panthers saw their longest winning streak of the season snapped at three games, but not without mounting a valiant comeback effort after trailing 4-0 heading into the third period.

"We played a good first 45 minutes, then we relaxed a little bit," Backstrom said. "Obviously you don't want to see that happen. You've got to learn how to play better than we did the last period. We're happy with two points tonight, but we're not happy the way we ended the game."

Tomas Kopecky scored his 14th and 15th goals of the season for Florida, as he passed Shawn Matthias for the team lead. Peter Mueller had the other Panthers goal.

Jacob Markstrom got the start in net for Florida for the sixth consecutive game, but he struggled again against Washington. Markstrom was pulled after Ovechkin's third goal made it 4-0 at 14:22 of the second period, although he was reinserted during a TV timeout 52 seconds later.

Markstrom ended with 27 saves.

In a March 7 game at Washington, Markstrom was pulled in a 7-1 loss after allowing two goals on the Capitals' first two shots.

Panthers coach Kevin Dineen criticized Markstrom's lack of preparation after that game in Washington. That wasn't the case Saturday.

"The game had nothing to do with the way Marky was playing," Dineen said. "You get down four goals, I feel we have some belief and I think he needed a little break from the net and we needed to take a breath. That was the extent of it."

Nick Bjugstad, one of Florida's three first-round picks in the 2010 draft, made his NHL debut three days after signing an entry-level contract. Bjugstad had a quiet night, although he did have a good scoring opportunity on a wraparound in the second period.

"I was both excited and nervous, but as the game went on I felt a little more comfortable," said Bjugstad, who had 13:04 of ice time and was credited with one shot. "It was good to get the first game under my belt and hopefully I can build off that."

The game was scoreless until late in the first period when Florida defenseman Erik Gudbranson was assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct for boarding Martin Erat.

Erat, acquired by the Capitals from the Nashville Predators at the trade deadline on Wednesday, sustained a lower-body injury on the play and did not return. Capitals coach Adam Oates said after the game that Erat would be evaluated Sunday morning but added that the injury didn't look serious enough to force Erat to miss many games.

Washington, which came in with the best power play in the NHL, took advantage against the worst penalty-killing team in the League.

Ovechkin scored his first goal at 15:45 of the first off a tic-tac-toe passing play from Backstrom to Ribeiro at the side of the net and across the crease to Ovechkin for the one-timer.

It was the first of three power-play goals for the Capitals.

Dineen took the blame for the second, Ribeiro's goal 43 seconds into the second period.

After Gudbranson was ejected from the game for the hit on Erat, the Panthers neglected to put anyone in the penalty box to serve his major penalty. So when that penalty expired during play with 23 seconds left in the first period — after Florida had killed off the last 3:52 — the Panthers were not allowed to send a fifth skater onto the ice until a whistle. That whistle came when Quinton Howden was called for hooking at 19:55.

"I made a huge mistake," Dineen said. "It gets hung on me. Really, the game gets hung on me. I didn't put a guy in the penalty box, the penalty expires, we have nobody to come out of the box, so we're still short and we ended up taking another one, [and] they scored one at the beginning of the second. Bad coaching error by me."

Ovechkin's third goal also came on the power play and was identical to his first, except that it was Marcus Johansson who took the pass from Backstrom and fed Ovechkin.

Ovechkin's second goal, which made it 3-0 at 2:24 of the second period, was his most spectacular. After losing control of the puck to his right while attempting to deke defenseman Filip Kuba, Ovechkin lifted Kuba's stick from behind, grabbed the puck and fired a quick wrist over the left shoulder of Markstrom.

"The game went downhill in the second; that was our fault," Matthias said. "You can't blame the refs for that or anything. We didn't play well in the second and that's what cost us the game."

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