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Surging Ovechkin, Capitals pay visit to Panthers

by Corey Masisak

CAPITALS (17-12-2) at PANTHERS (10-17-5)


Last 10: Washington 5-4-1; Florida 4-5-1

Season series: This is the second game between the two clubs. The Washington Capitals claimed a 3-2 shootout victory at Verizon Center on Nov. 2. They went 47-25-7-4 against the Florida Panthers during the 14 seasons in which the teams were members of the Southeast Division.

Big story: The Capitals are seeking their fourth straight victory and possibly some separation from the pack behind the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Metropolitan Division.

Team Scope:

Capitals: Washington has followed a four-game losing streak with victories in five of its past six. Alex Ovechkin scored four times to help the Capitals rally from an early three-goal deficit and defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning 6-5 in a shootout on Tuesday.

Ovechkin has 48 goals in his past 50 regular-season games, dating to March 17 against the Buffalo Sabres. He scored once in that game, so if Ovechkin can bag a hat trick against the Panthers, it would give him 50 in his past 50 games. His 26 goals this season have him on a pace for 68, which would surpass his career-high of 65 set in 2007-08.

“He’s shooting the puck the best I’ve ever seen him shoot it since we’ve been here,” defenseman Mike Green told the Washington Post. “He’s just got that knack. He understands when to shoot, it’s amazing how many shots he does get a game and, obviously, with the accuracy and poise he has with his shot; it’s incredible how he picks those corners."

Panthers: Goalie Tim Thomas has started 15 of the past 16 games for the Panthers but left practice early Thursday and won't dress Friday. The only game he has not started during this string was a 6-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday when Scott Clemmensen made 26 saves on 32 shots.

Thomas, 39, has worked his way onto the fringe of the United States Olympic team discussion with his play for the Panthers. He's 9-10-1 with a 2.75 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage in 21 starts.

Clemmensen will start Friday and the Panthers recalled goaltender Jacob Markstrom from San Antonio of the American Hockey League on an emergency basis. Thomas has missed 10 games this season with groin and lower-body injuries.

Who's hot: Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom has eight points in his past five games. He leads the NHL in games with three or more assists (four), one more than Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby. … Panthers forward Tomas Fleischmann has three points in his past five games. He has seven points in 11 games against the Capitals since they traded him to the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 30, 2010.

Injury report: Forward Brooks Laich (groin) was on the ice before practice Thursday with the Capitals and will not travel with the team. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth (lower body) has been sent to Hershey of the American Hockey League for the weekend on a conditioning stint. Defenseman John Erskine (upper body) will go to Florida with the team but will not be in the lineup. Defenseman Jack Hillen (leg) is out. … Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski (hip) has yet to play this season and is on injured reserve.

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