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NHL: Fast Caps quick to cage Panthers

WASHINGTON—As the goals piled up in the first period, one after another after another after another, Adam Oates was haunted by the possibility of a horrible letdown.

The Washington Capitals head coach had seen it before—a gratifying victory followed by a devastating loss. And after scoring four goals on Florida in the first period on Thursday, Oates couldn’t help but let his thoughts drift toward the negative.

It didn’t matter. The Capitals coasted on the momentum of the early lead and earned a 7–1 win over the Panthers at the Verizon Center, with Alex Ovechkin, Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolski each having a goal and two assists and 11 different players recording a point.

John Erskine, John Carlson, Eric Fehr and Mathieu Perreault also scored for Washington (10–11–1), which has now won eight of its last 11 games and is behind only Chicago as one of the hottest teams in the league.

“You know, it doesn’t matter what situation are or how bad team plays or how good we play,” Ovechkin said. “We need that kind of game and we need that kind of situation. Of course, it’s maybe happen once a year, but we’ll take it.”

Such a streak is necessary in a shortened season; the Capitals started by losing eight of their first 10, and even with the recent success, the meeting with the Panthers still represented one between the last two teams in the Eastern Conference standings.

Florida (7–12–5) had lost 10 of its last 13 games, including two to Washington in mid-February.

“We had a wake-up call along the way, and whether it was looking at where we were in the standings or not being happy with ourselves, guys realize that when it comes to the end of April we don’t want to be watching. We want to be playing,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “We had a little transition period where we needed to learn the systems. I thought maybe we took a little bit longer than we should have, but guys are buying in. Guys can see what the system can do and what the team can do, and how we’re playing to our potential right now.”

The Capitals needed every minute on Tuesday, plus overtime, to defeat Boston, 4–3, in their toughest challenge of the season.

Thursday was much different, however, with Washington (10–11–1) scoring four times in the first 8:10 against a Florida team missing eight regulars, including center Stephen Weiss, wingers Kris Versteeg and Scottie Upshall and goaltender Jose Theodore.

Erskine scored the first goal, his third of the season, 1:58 into the game with a slap shot from the blue line that first ricocheted off goaltender Jacob Markstrom’s blocker before dribbling in. Wolski, too, stunned Markstrom with an easy goal, chasing him from the game after just 3:10 by curling around the back of the net for his second goal in as many games.

“I don’t like to hang out anybody to dry, but obviously, I don’t think Jacob Markstrom was ready to play tonight,” Florida head coach Kevin Dineen said. “And the ball started to roll. We need absolutely to be firing on all cylinders for us to have success, and that wasn’t the case tonight.”

Scott Clemmensen, who replaced Markstrom, didn’t fare much better. Carlson sank a point shot off a faceoff win by Brouwer 5:38 into the game, and Ribeiro completed a dominant first period with a wrister off a pass from Ovechkin after 8:10.

Ovechkin, who has 10 points in his last six games and stands one away from 700 in his career, scored his goal on a power play 9:17 into the second period. Open near the left faceoff circle, the winger got his stick on a wobbly pass from Brouwer, beating Clemmensen nearside when the goaltender couldn’t turn fast enough.

The power play opportunity was the result of a five-minute major and game misconduct charged to Florida defenseman Tyson Strachan, who was called for interference 8:57 into the second period after he blindsided Jason Chimera near center ice with a vicious hit.

Chimera retreated to the locker room, where Oates implied he was checked for a concussion, before returning to the game. Strachan declined comment on the hit; the Capitals did not allow Chimera to speak afterward.

“He came back, said he felt OK,” Oates said. “Glad to hear it.”

Fehr scored the Capitals’ final goal on a power play 4:10 into the third period, scooping a pass across the crease from Wolski into the left of the net. Matt Hendricks nearly scored the seventh for Washington roughly 3 minutes later, but a video review determined Hendricks kicked the puck into the net, before Perreault finished it off with 59 seconds to play.

Whereas the Panthers’ goaltenders struggled, Braden Holtby was again strong in net for Washington. Making his 11th consecutive start, the goaltender turned away 29 shots on the night, including a sequence late in the second period where he snagged Shawn Matthias’ wrister with 13 seconds left in the frame and then withstood the Panthers’ attempt to crash the net for a rebound.

His only blemish came midway through the third, when Jack Skille batted in a rebound 10:49 into the period to break Holtby’s attempt for his fourth shutout of the season.

“As long as we win that game, shutouts aren’t much of a stat if you’re not winning,” Holtby said. “It happens.”

Washington has only one game remaining against Florida this season – an April 6 meeting on the road. It’s unfortunate news for the Capitals, who have now scored 18 goals in three games against the Panthers, but the convincing three-game win streak is a sign that the team is ready for bigger challenges.

“We’re just happy that we’re winning games right now, and we don’t want to be a .500 team,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We want to be much above .500, so it’s just, I guess, just the first step.”

Florida 0 0 1 — 1

Washington 4 1 2 — 7

First Period—Washington, Erskine 3 (Ovechkin, Carlson), 1:58. 2, Washington, Wolski 4 (Oleksy, Perreault), 3:10. 3, Washington, Carlson 4 (Backstrom, Brouwer), 5:38. 4, Washington, Ribeiro 9 (Ovechkin, Hendricks), 8:10. Penalties—None.
Second Period—5, Washington, Ovechkin 9 (Brouwer, Ribeiro), 9:17 (pp). Penalties—Strachan, Fla, served by Huberdeau, major-game misconduct (interference -), 8:57.
Third Period—6, Washington, Fehr 6 (Wolski, Ribeiro), 4:08 (pp). 7, Florida, Skille 3 (Matthias), 10:49. 8, Washington, Perreault 3 (Wolski, Oleksy), 19:01. Penalties—Yonkman, Fla (interference), 2:18; Kundrate, Was (hooking), 8:06; Chimera, Was (roughing), 13:40.
Shots on Goal—Florida 8-12-10—30. Washington 12-4-10—26. Goalies—Florida, Markstrom 1-3-0 (2 shots-0 saves), Clemmensen (3:10 first, 24-19). Washington, Holtby 9-7-0 (30-29). Florida, Markstrom 1-3-0 (2 shots-0 saves), Clemmensen (3:10 first, 24-19). Washington, Holtby 9-7-0 (30-29).18,506 (18,506). T—2:27.

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