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Panthers-Capitals Preview @NHLdotcom

The Washington Capitals have a double-digit lead and the inside track for their second straight Southeast Division title.

It could be up to the Florida Panthers to determine whether they'll have any competition.

The Southeast's top two teams meet on Saturday night as the red-hot Panthers try to become the first team this season to beat the Capitals twice at the Verizon Center.

Washington's 18-6-1 run over the past two months has vaulted the team into second place in the Eastern Conference, and reigning Hart trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin has helped the Capitals (33-16-4) open up a 12-point division lead on Florida.

But with plenty of head-to-head opportunities to gain ground, the Panthers (25-18-8) have a chance to at least make the race interesting. The teams face off three times in the next 23 days and five times in the final nine weeks of the regular season.

Florida has already climbed back into playoff position, going 9-2-3 to start 2009 and winning four of its first five games after the All-Star break to move into eighth place in the East as the franchise chases its first playoff berth since 1999-2000.

The Panthers snapped the New York Islanders' four-game winning streak with a 3-2 victory on Thursday. Florida's Tomas Vokoun continued his strong play, making 20 saves to move to 7-2-2 with a 2.15 goals-against average since the beginning of January.

The defensive-minded Panthers are one of three East teams without a 40-point scorer, and defensemen Karlis Skrastins and Jay Bouwmeester each contributed a goal.

"All year, everyone's been chipping in," Bouwmeester said. "That's kind of just the way it has to be here. Everyone has to contribute a little bit."

Washington's style is different, as the Capitals' prolific offense centers around Ovechkin's NHL-leading 37 goals. Nicklas Backstrom ranks in the league's top five with 42 assists, while Alexander Semin has 45 points in just 35 games.

Mike Green leads all NHL defensemen with 44 points.

"I think they're the most explosive team in the league, top to bottom ... We usually play better when we're a little scared, and we should be scared of this team," Florida rookie coach Peter DeBoer told his team's official Web site.

At just 23 years old, Ovechkin became the fifth-fastest to score 200 career goals, but the Capitals lost 5-4 on Thursday at home to Los Angeles.

Washington is still 21-4-1 at home, although Florida won 5-3 in the nation's capital on Dec. 2, a result that remains the Capitals' only regulation loss to an East team at the Verizon Center.

Even though the Capitals have scored 20 goals in their last four games, winning three straight before Thursday, they weren't happy with their play against the Kings after Semin put them ahead just 15 seconds into the first period.

"I don't know what's happening with us, but after (Semin's) goal, we just stopped playing," Ovechkin said. "Didn't play our system. We didn't finish checks. We didn't shoot the puck. We didn't play our game."

Jose Theodore, 11-3-1 with a 2.21 GAA in his previous 15 starts, matched season high with five goals allowed against Los Angeles. Theodore will have a heavy workload over the next two months, with backup Brent Johnson slated to have hip surgery next week.

Washington is also playing without its captain after Chris Clark had season-ending wrist surgery this week.

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