The Washington Capitals picked up a much-needed win over the Southeast Division leaders last night. Another victory against a division rival this evening would next land them a share of first place.
The Caps hope to avoid a letdown on Saturday night when they battle the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are struggling to keep their own playoff chances alive.
Washington picked up a shutout victory over Florida last week to grab sole possession of first place in the division over the Panthers, but went 0-2-1 after that win to fall back into second place.
The Capitals closed the gap with the Panthers to two points last night with a 2-1 victory in Florida, getting third-period goals from Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. Washington can move into a tie tonight with Florida, which is idle before hosting Anaheim on Sunday.
Former Panther goaltender Tomas Vokoun made his return to Sunrise and stopped 22 shots for the Capitals, who still sit ninth overall in the Eastern Conference and one point behind the Maple Leafs.
"A big game, I was a little nervous, too," Vokoun said. "It's not easy playing back where I played last year, and we're chasing them. But I settled in and obviously a great finish by our guys."
Washington picked up a victory in the opener of a four-game road trip and moved to 10-15-3 as the guest this season.
Tampa Bay made a run to last year's conference finals, but comes into play tonight tied with the New York Islanders for 12th in the East with 56 points. That has the Lightning just one ahead of the Hurricanes and Sabres for the fewest in the conference.
The Lightning made a move prior to Thursday's game with the Sharks, trading veteran center Dominic Moore and a draft pick to San Jose for a 2012 second- round selection. Defenseman Pavel Kubina was also held out of the lineup as the team looks to deal the blueliner.
Despite the off-ice moves, the Lightning came out and picked up a big 6-5 overtime win against the Sharks. Martin St. Louis had two goals, including the game-winner with 32.8 seconds remaining in the extra session, while Steven Stamkos upped his league-leading goal total to 39 with a pair of tallies. He also had two assists and sits third in the NHL with 66 points.
"There's a lot of time left in this season and you never know what can happen," said St. Louis. "If we throw in the towel because of what's going on around us, it's going to be a pretty miserable last two months."
The Lightning had dropped four in a row and seven of nine to the Capitals prior to a 4-3 overtime win at Tampa on Jan. 31 in the third of six encounters this season.
Washington has still won 10 of its past 13 as the guest in this series.