Panthers take another shot at ending playoff drought against Caps

The Florida Panthers haven't looked like a playoff-caliber club lately, but a victory over the Washington Capitals could certainly turn the tide.

It will also give them their first ever division title.

The Panthers try to end their NHL-record 10-season playoff drought this evening against the postseason-hopeful Caps.

With two games left to play, Florida is four points ahead of eighth-seeded Washington for first place in the Southeast Division. That means the Panthers need only a point in this game to secure their first trip to the playoffs since 2000. However, a regulation loss could still leave missing the postseason all together an option.

The Sabres are tied with the Capitals for the eighth spot, but Washington owns the tiebreaker with four more non-shootout wins. If both clubs win out -- Buffalo is in Philadelphia this evening -- and Florida suffers regulation setbacks tonight and at home versus Carolina on Saturday, the Panthers would finish in ninth place and out of the playoffs.

Florida had a chance to clinch the division on Tuesday with a victory, but instead dropped a 5-4 overtime decision to visiting Winnipeg after failing to hold an early three-goal lead. Marco Sturm, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Tomas Kopecky all scored for the Panthers and Jose Theodore allowed five goals on 30 shots faced.

"It's hard to express the disappointment," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "There's a little bit of shock by all of us."

Though Florida has lost four straight and seven of its past eight, five of those defeats have come after regulation. The Panthers have kept pace in the Southeast Division by getting points in 12 of their last 14 (6-2-6).

"We haven't made anything easy on ourselves all year, so it looks like we're following that trend," said Panthers forward Stephen Weiss. "It sets up for a good one in Washington."

Florida, which has only made the playoffs three times since joining the NHL as an expansion club in 1993-94, has lost three of five to the Capitals this season while getting shut out in both trips to Washington. The Panthers have been outscored 15-4 over a current four-game slide in Washington and have lost 10 of their last 13 as the guest in this series.

The Capitals are 19-8-1 versus the Panthers over the last 28 encounters, but didn't do themselves any favors in the race for the division title with Monday's 4-2 loss at Tampa Bay.

Alexander Semin and Jason Chimera both scored their 20th goals of the season, with Chimera reaching that mark for the first time in his career and Semin for a sixth season in a row. Michal Neuvirth allowed three goals on 26 shots as the Caps failed to secure a third straight win.

"We had some chances out there tonight," said Washington head coach Dale Hunter. "But you have to give credit to their goalie, he had a real strong game."

Neuvirth will get the start again as former Panther goaltender Tomas Vokoun is out with a strained groin. Vokoun had been in net for both of Washington's shutouts this season against Florida.

Washington will look to rebound tonight knowing that if it wins tonight and in New York against the Rangers on Saturday, it is in the playoffs. But Hunter knows the club can't look too far ahead either.

"We're just worried about [Thursday night]," Caps head coach Dale Hunter said after practice on Wednesday. "We know what's at stake. When we played Buffalo a week and a half ago, we lost and it was out of our hands. Now it's back in our hands and we can control our destiny. That's where you want to be as a hockey club."

Semin has 16 goals and 35 points in 39 career games versus the Panthers, including a pair of goals and five points in four games against them this season. Chimera has also logged five points in the season series.

Weiss is pacing the Panthers with three goals and two assists versus the Capitals this campaign, giving him 41 points in 47 career encounters.