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Panthers, Caps again do battle for first place

Another battle for first place in the Southeast Division is on tap tonight, as the Washington Capitals host the Florida Panthers at the Verizon Center.

Florida enters tonight with a one-point lead over the Capitals for the top spot in the division. The Panthers trailed Washington by one point when the clubs met last Wednesday and Florida grabbed the division lead with a 4-2 win over the visiting Caps.

Washington has won the last four Southeast titles, while the Panthers have never won a division crown and haven't even qualified for the playoffs since 2000. Florida has taken two of the first three meetings with the Caps this season, but Washington has won three in a row and six of the last seven encounters in D.C.

The Caps have a strong 18-7-1 record on home ice this year, while Florida is just 11-11-4 as the guest.

The Panthers had won their first two games following the All-Star break before getting slammed Saturday in Tampa. The Lightning rode a hat trick from Martin St. Louis en route to the decisive 6-3 victory.

Former Tampa Bay forward Sean Bergenheim ended with a goal and an assist for the Panthers, while Mikael Samuelsson and Tomas Fleischmann also lit the lamp. Samuelsson had two goals in last week's win over the Capitals and has four goals and one assist during a four-game point streak.

Scott Clemmensen stopped 27-of-32 shots and was pulled briefly in favor of Brian Foster, who made his NHL debut at the end of the second period. Foster stopped the only shot he faced before Clemmensen returned for the start of the final period.

"We had a tough second period to say the least," Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen said. "We got off to a tough start and I think we were our own worst enemy so that was certainly the difference."

With both Jose Theodore and Jacob Markstrom dealing with knee injuries, Clemmensen has started the last five games for the Panthers. Both Theodore and Markstrom are close to returning, but Foster may be used as the backup again tonight.

The Capitals have lost three of four and five of their last seven games and they split a pair of tests this weekend. Washington shut out the Canadiens in Montreal in Saturday's 3-0 decision, but the Caps were dealt a 4-1 home loss by Boston on Sunday.

The Bruins scored twice in the first period to take an early 2-0 lead and Tim Thomas stopped 35-of-36 shots to make the edge hold up.

Marcus Johansson scored the lone goal for the Capitals in the third period and Tomas Vokoun gave up three goals on 29 shots in the loss.

"We had a lot of chances, but Thomas came up big," said Washington head coach Dale Hunter. "A goalie as good as Thomas can beat you by himself some nights."

Alex Ovechkin fired seven shots on net in Sunday's loss, but the Russian forward has not registered a point in two tilts since serving a three-game suspension. He has 20 goals and 27 assists in 40 career games against the Panthers and has one assist in two tests versus Florida this year.

Caps forward Brooks Laich is not expected to play tonight after suffering an injured left knee against the Bruins. Washington is still without defenseman Mike Green (sports hernia) and forward Nicklas Backstrom (concussion), but defenseman Dmitry Orlov is expected to play despite getting hit in the face with pucks in both games this weekend.