WASHINGTON – The Washington Capitals' power play is hitting its stride just in time for the playoffs, with Mike Knuble and Jason Chimera both scoring with the man advantage Wednesday night in a 5-2 victory over the Florida Panthers.
The win was the Capitals' fourth straight and put them on the brink of clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the second year in a row. Washington can drop out of first place only if it loses in regulation to Florida on Saturday and if the Philadelphia Flyers win their last two games.
Playing their regular-season home finale, the Capitals found the conference's worst team to be good fodder for working on a power play that has been mysteriously mediocre for much of the season. But the first-period goals by Knuble and Chimera gave Washington five man-advantage goals in three games, its most prolific stretch since the calendar flipped from October to November.
Sean Collins, called up over the weekend because of injuries to several Washington defensemen, padded the lead in the second period with his second career NHL goal. Matt Hendricks made it 4-0 in the third period, and Alex Ovechkin scored his 301st NHL goal into an empty net against a Panthers team that has lost nine straight. Semyon Varlamov, competing with Michal Neuvirth for the right to start the Capitals' playoff opener next week, made 31 saves.
While the No. 1 seed is a nice feather in the Caps' cap, Washington cares more about making up for its postseason disappointments of recent seasons — and it showed in the lineup coach Bruce Boudreau put on the ice. Jason Arnott and Alexander Semin, who have been nursing injuries, were given the night off to make sure they are healthy for next week.
If anything, Wednesday's power-play goals were almost too easy — Knuble and Chimera simply skated to the net and waited for the puck, unfettered by any Panthers defenseman. Brooks Laich skated down the left flank before supplying the pass to Knuble just 1:20 into the game, while Nicklas Backstrom fed Chimera from behind the net in the final minute of the period.
After that, the Capitals were left to practice the new defensive philosophy they adopted midway through the season, clamping down on the Panthers until game's final minutes despite missing injured regular defensemen Mike Green, Tom Poti and Dennis Wideman. David Booth scored on a power play with 6:16 left in the game, and Mike Santorelli cut the deficit to two with 1:31 remaining and the goaltender pulled.
There was a shining moment for Collins, whose only previous NHL goal came on New Year's Day of 2009. Ovechkin intercepted a pass at the Capitals' blue line, started the counterattack but deferred by sliding a pass to Collins, whose wrister beat Scott Clemmensen to the glove side.
Ovechkin finished with two assists in addition to his empty-netter, giving him eight points in the last four games. Laich also had two assists for the Capitals, who won by at least four goals for only the second time in 45 games.
Clemmensen made 20 saves in his fourth straight start in place of Tomas Vokoun, who remains out with a back injury.
NOTES: Boudreau said Green (concussion) could return to action in Saturday's regular-season finale at Florida. "He's ready to play, if we decide to play him," Boudreau said. Green hasn't appeared in a game since a brief appearance against the Rangers on Feb. 25; before that, he hadn't played since Feb. 12. ... Boudreau said he's "got to believe" Wideman (leg injury) will miss at least the first round of the playoffs. "This time next week, we'll know a lot more than we know now. It all depends on how his rehab goes and how quick he takes to it," Boudreau said. ... Florida C Stephen Weiss missed his second straight game with a groin injury. ... The Capitals are 39-0-3 when scoring three or more goals. ... Washington ended a streak of four straight games that went to overtime. ... The Capitals sold out every home game for the second straight season.