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GAME: Washington Capitals (19-34-8-2) at Florida Panthers (23-25-13-3).

TIME: Friday, 7:30 p.m. EST.

This latest surge by the Florida Panthers has red-hot goaltender Roberto Luongo thinking about the playoffs. He can also start thinking about the Vezina Trophy.

Luongo looks to lead the Panthers to their first six-game unbeaten streak in more than six years when the Washington Capitals visit the Office Depot Center.

Luongo recorded his third shutout in four games and Juraj Kolnik had two goals and an assist, leading Florida to a 4-0 victory over visiting Toronto on Wednesday.

Matt Cullen and Niklas Hagman also scored for the Panthers, 3-0-2 in their last five and 6-3-2 this month.

A win or tie Friday would give Florida its first six-game unbeaten streak since a 3-0-3 run from Dec. 26-Jan. 4, 1998.

"This is the best we've played all year," Luongo said. "It's nice to be in this situation this late in the year. It's the first time for me that we're still in it this late in the season. I'm still trying to make the playoffs."

No goalie in the league is currently playing better than Luongo, who has stopped 138 of 140 shots while posting a 0.49 goals-against average in the past four games. His sixth shutout of the season tied his own franchise record set in 2002-03.

"I'm feeling great right now and the guys are playing great in front of me," Luongo said. "That makes my job a lot easier. We have to keep going."

Panthers general manager Rick Dudley believes Luongo has a legitimate chance to win the Vezina - awarded to the league's top goalie.

"I think he'll win it," Dudley said. "If you asked the other 29 GMs if they could have one goaltender to put on their roster, I'd bet a lot of money most would say Roberto Luongo."

If the Panthers are going to make a run at the playoffs, now is the time. Upcoming opponents include two matchups with Washington and one with Chicago - two of the league's worst teams.

With the trade deadline less than two weeks away, rumors are intensifying that the Capitals will continue their salary purge by dealing Sergei Gonchar - the NHL scoring leader among defensemen with 49 points.

Washington lost its second straight Wednesday, falling 2-1 to visiting Carolina and managing only five shots on goal in the first 38 minutes.

"It's not acceptable," Washington's Jeff Halpern said. "We're a little limited in some areas. We have a tough time generating a lot of shots."

One of the few bright spots for the Capitals this season has been the play of center Robert Lang, the NHL leader with 74 points.

Lang scored his 29th goal of the season Wednesday, giving him six goals and 10 assists during a 13-game point streak.

STANDINGS (through Feb. 25): Capitals - 48 points, 5th place, 30 PB, Southeast Division. Panthers - 62 points, 2nd place, 16 PB, Southeast Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Capitals - Lang, 29 goals, 45 assists and 74 points; Jason Doig, 103 PIM. Panthers - Olli Jokinen, 18 goals; Valeri Bure, 23 assists and 40 points; Darcy Hordichuk, 119 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS (through Feb. 25): Capitals - Power play: 19.6 percent (52 for 265), 5th in NHL. Penalty killing: 81.8 percent (247 for 302), 24th. Panthers - Power play: 15.7 percent (36 for 229), 18th. Penalty killing: 85.8 percent (242 for 282), 3rd.

GOALTENDERS: Capitals - Olaf Kolzig (16-29-7, 2 SO, 2.89 GAA); Sebastien Charpentier (0-2-0, 3.18). Panthers - Luongo (20-25-12, 6, 2.24); Steve Shields (3-3-1, 3.38).

SEASON SERIES: Panthers, 2-0-2.

LAST MEETING: Feb. 21; 2-2 tie. At Washington, Lang scored late in the second period and set up Gonchar's tying goal at 7:10 of the third.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Capitals - 9-18-3-1 on the road; Panthers - 13-9-6-2 at home.

Associated Press
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