Panthers host Capitals in important divisional clash

The Florida Panthers' first game following the All-Star break is an important one, as they host the rival Washington Capitals in tonight's Southeast Division clash at BankAtlantic Center.

The Panthers, who are attempting to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000, enter tonight one point behind Washington for first place in the Southeast Division. The clubs were tied heading into the All-Star break, but the Capitals took over the top spot after gaining a point in Tuesday's overtime loss in Tampa.

Florida, which is also one point in back of Toronto for the eighth seed in the East, will try to bounce back from a rough January that saw the club go 2-3-4 over nine games. The Panthers have won just four times in their last 15 trips to the ice.

The Capitals and Panthers have each won a game against each other this season and the clubs have split the last eight meetings overall. Florida has taken three of the last four matchups in Sunrise and posted a 5-4 regulation win when the clubs met on Dec. 5 in South Florida. Stephen Weiss, Brian Campbell and the now-injured Dmitry Kulikov each had three-point nights in that last contest between these Southeast Division foes.

Campbell was Florida's lone representative at Sunday's All-Star Game in Ottawa and he posted an assist and had a plus-seven rating to help Team Chara record a 12-9 win over Team Alfredsson.

Florida opened a three-game homestand just prior to the All-Star break and it suffered a 3-2 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Panthers have lost their last three home games, dropping them to 11-5-7 as the host this year.

Panthers leading scorer Kris Versteeg has been bothered by the flu bug recently, but is expected to play tonight. Florida also expects to have forward Marco Sturm back this evening for the first time since he suffered a concussion on Dec. 21.

Meanwhile, the Capitals will not have superstar winger Alex Ovechkin tonight, as he serves the final portion of a three-game suspension for a hit on Pittsburgh's Zbynek Michalek. The Panthers won't miss Ovechkin, who has 47 points in 40 career games against Florida.

Washington lost for the third time in four games Tuesday evening in Tampa, but the Caps also posted a point in their third straight outing. The Caps dropped a 4-3 decision to the Lightning, as Steven Stamkos scored the winner at the 2:45 mark of overtime. Washington had tied the game at 3-3 when Troy Brouwer scored the only goal of the third period.

Brouwer, Matt Hendricks and Mathieu Perreault all scored for the Capitals, while Tomas Vokoun finished the game with 27 saves.

"We created chances very well tonight," said Hendricks. "We were able to come back from a couple of goals and those are the positives we can take out of this game."

Vokoun played the previous four seasons with Florida before signing a one-year deal with Washington in the offseason. It's unclear if the Czech veteran will get his first start in Sunrise since leaving the Panthers tonight, or if head coach Dale Hunter will use Michal Neuvirth rather than let the 35-year-old Vokoun play on back-to-back nights.

Vokoun went 101-108-30 with a 2.57 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage in 248 games with the Panthers.