It is hard to imagine that after dismantling the Detroit Red Wings 7-1 to start the season 7-0 back on Oct-22 that the words "must win", and "playoff type game" would be used to describe tonight’s contest between the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center, but they most certainly are being thrown around the Caps dressing room with regularity.

Capitals head coach Dale Hunter told reporters following today’s morning skate, “It’s like a playoff game tonight. If you want to call a regular season [game] a playoff game, tonight is the night.” 

The Capitals are a team desperate to win with some consistency. They play impressive disciplined hockey in Hunters system one night, and the next night, they play like the team they have unfortunatly become, one badly scrambling for a playoff spot.

Washington has not won consecutive games since a three-game streak between Jan. 11-15, and is just 4-4-2 in their last 10 games. They are 1-2-1 since the All-Star break, and recorded more than 30 shots during Sundays 4-1 loss to the Bruins for the first time since Dec-13. 

The Capitals are 27-21-4, and are ninth in the eastern conference. They currently reside one point behind the Panthers for first place in the southeast division, and are three points behind the Ottawa Senators for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.

To make matters more concerning for Washington, they are not making up any ground on any team ahead of them. Washington trails the seventh place Maple Leafs by four points, the sixth place Devils by five, and their arch rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins by six points. 

Washington does control their destiny so to speak. The Caps still have another game this month with Florida, and will also face Toronto and Ottawa before March. Speaking of upcoming battles with the Cats, the Caps and Panthers have three more meetings (Feb-17 & April-5) this season, two of them at the big phone booth in China Town. A loss in regulation to the Panthers tonight would drop the Caps three points behind Florida

Tonight's game is the second of a brief three game stop in D.C, as the Winnipeg Jets visit on Thursday for another Southeast showdown. However, the Capitals will then play six of their next 10 games away from home.

The Caps own the NHL's fourth best home record with an 18-7-1 mark this season, but the road has not been nearly as kind. As good as the Caps are at home is as bad as they are on the road. Washington also owns the third worst road record in the Easter conference this season having gone just 9-14-3 away from the Nation’s Capital.

The Capitals dropped just 15 games on the road for the entire season last year, and have already lost four more games on the road than they did in all of the 2009-`10 campaign. 

But home is where the Caps are tonight and a win is a must. Washington must begin to piece together a run similar to that of last season. The Capitals were 27-15-10 through 52 games (64-pts) last season, but won 14 of their next 20 games including a nine game winning streak that saw the Caps gain control of the division from the Tampa Bay Lightning, and eventually the Eastern Conference from the Philadelphia Flyers.

LAICH IT OR NOT:

That run could prove to be much more difficult this season as the Capitals are battling injuries to their top stars. Nicklas Backstrom has now missed 14-games, and is listed as day-to-day. Mike Green has played in just 10-games this season, and now, the Caps may be without their next best center, Brooks Laich for a period of time.

During Sunday's loss, Laich was hit into the boards by Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenburg. Immediately after the check, Laich hobbled off the ice on one leg. He did not put any weight on his left leg. After an attempt to skate on it during a television timeout late in the second period, Laich left the Caps’ bench for good and did not return. He did not practice with his teammates on Monday and was further evaluated yesterday by team doctors. 

“He’s day-to-day right now,” says Caps coach Dale Hunter of Laich. “He was walking on it, so he was fine. It’s day-to-day; it’s not major.” While the injury may not be major, and thank God for that, any time missed by Laich is likely to cost the Capitals. Without Laich and Backstrom in the lineup the Caps are losing two of their top six scorers, and a combined 23 goals and 47 assists. They are also losing an ice time eater in Laich.

Currently, Laich is second on the Caps roster amongst forwards, averaging 19:14 minutes per game. Only Alex Ovechkin averages more, and not by much with 19-minutes, and 32-seconds per contest.

Since the Capitals acquired Laich from Ottawa back in 2004 for Peter Bondra, no other Caps player has worn a Washington jersey more during that span. Laich has suited up for 526 games, and the Great 8 is two behind at 524. Since Feb-21, 2007, Laich has played in 397 of the Caps 401 games. He missed four games because of a facial injury late in the 09-10 season. He was struck by a John Carlson slap shot which ricocheted off the crossbar in practice and nailed Laich in the cheek.

With the way the Caps depend on Laich, head coach Dale Hunter says the team will use multiple players to try to replace him. “It will be more of a committee,” says Hunter of getting by if Laich is out for tonight’s game. Of worse, multiple games. “They will have to play the power play, kill penalties and play against the top lines of other teams. Definitely it’s an opportunity for other players to step up in all his different roles.”

According to the Caps web site, former team captain, and Caps center Jeff Halpern is the team’s most experienced pivot. The rest of the centers on the Washington roster combined – Matt Hendricks, Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, Keith Aucoin and Jay Beagle have combined for fewer NHL games played (525) than Laich.

WILL VOKOUN FINALLY GET THE NOD?

If you watched the Caps lose 4-2 last Wednesday in Sunrise Florida, and 5-4 back on Dec-5. One would almost have to figure that former Panther’s goalie Tomas Vokoun figures to get the start tonight. In both games, Caps sophomore Michael Neuvirth got the nod, and in both games allowed easy—very goals.

In early December the Caps were down 3-0 before they sat down on the bench and 5-1 before they made the game close with three tallies in the final stanza. Last week, Neuvy allowed 35-year-old Mikael Samuelsson to beat him twice with long goals. The first, which was Samuelsson’s fourth of the year, was scored from beyond the blue line. The second wasn’t much closer as Samuelsson scored about three feet inside the blue line.

Vokoun has faced his old team once this season and shut them out 3-0 with a 20-save performance back on Oct-18. If you ask me, and nobody ever does, Hunters decision not to start Vokoun last Wednesday could be one of those choices that he questions if the Caps are on the outside looking in come the second Sunday in April.

So far this season, Vokoun has been the Caps top net minder, and if tonight’s contest is a must win and a playoff type game, then there is no doubt that the elder Czech should be between the pipes, as he should have been last week in Florida.

On the season, Vokoun is 21-13-1, but has been nearly unbeatable at home. He is 15-5-0 at the Verizon Center with a .924 save percentage, and 2.18 goals against average.

MORE CATS AND CAPS PREVIEW:

The Capitals lead the overall series 49-36-9-7 entering the 102nd meeting tonight, and are 26-14-5-5 at home. Home ice has proven to be extremely important in this series lately. While the Caps have dropped three straight games in South Florida, the Capitals are 9-3-0 against Florida in their last 12 home games vs. the Panthers. In those 12 home games, the Capitals have outscored Florida 44-30 and have not lost at Verizon Center since Dec. 9, 2010. Overall, the Caps have owned the Panthers over the previous 26-games; Washington is 17-8-1 against the Southeast Division-rival Florida Panthers, outscoring them 90-68 in that span.

The Panthers are coming off of a 6-3 loss at Tampa Bay on Saturday and are 4-3-3 in their last 10 games. The Cats are not that ferocious coming off a loss this season. Florida is 8-7-5 following a loss, and has dropped at least three in a row four times this season. The Panthers were 2-0-1 the games prior to facing Washington this season. 

BLOCK PARTY ANYONE?

Washington set a single-game high for blocked shots in Sunday’s game vs. Boston, blocking 28 Bruin attempts. It marked the 12th time that Washington has blocked 20 or more shots in its last 18 games and the 13th time in 30 games the Caps have blocked 20 or more pucks since Dale Hunter took over behind the bench on Nov. 28. Washington had 20 or more blocked shots just once in its previous 22 games. 

The Caps average 15.9 blocked shots per game this season, and are sixth in the NHL with 830 blocked shots this season.

POWER OUTAGE:

One major reason for the Caps lack of consistency is the fact that Washington is starting to struggle mightily on the power play once again. The Caps have failed to tally an extra man helper in 11 of their previous 13 games. Washington has not scored a power play goal since Jan-18, but has allowed five. Like any team struggling to secure a playoff berth this time of year, special teams must be special for the Caps.

When they are, the Caps win, and it's that simple. I've often said the Capitals play on special teams is the root of their problems. 

The Capitals are 16-6-0 this season when they score a power-play goal, and own an 11-1-0 record when scoring a power-play goal and not allowing a goal with the man advantage. All hope is not lost for the boys in red, since Dec. 6, the Capitals power play has improved from 14.7 percent to 17.5 percent, while their penalty kill has jumped from 79.8 percent to 81.2 percent in the same span. 

Those numbers have helped the Capitals to get within a point of the Panthers, whom they once trailed by as many as seven points in the Southeast. During that same span, Washington has gone 14-9-3 (31 points) while Florida has gone 9-8-7 (25 points). 

WHO’S ROCKIN IT RED HOT? 

All-star defenseman Dennis Wideman scored his 10th goal of the season on Feb. 4 at Montreal, becoming the fifth defensemen in the league to reach the 10-goal plateau this season. He is tied for fourth in the league in points among defensemen (35) and is tied for third in goals (10). Wideman was drafted in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, the 73rd defenseman selected that year. Only three of those blue liners drafted ahead of him in 2002 –Jay Bouwmeester, Joni Pitkanen and Duncan Keith –have totaled more NHL points than Wideman, and they were the first, second and 16th, respectively, defensemen chosen that year. 

Wideman also leads a contingent of defenseman, 10 to be specific, that have combined to score 22 goals and 78 assists for 100 points in the team’s 52 games this season. A defenseman has contributed at least one point in 41 of Washington’s 52 games this year. 

Marcus Johansson’s goal vs. Boston on Sunday has help him set a career high with 29 points (11g-18a) this season. Johansson has already set a career high in assists and game-winning goals (3) this season and has 11 points (5g-6a) in his last 16 games.  

The Caps hottest player during the past 10 games has been Mathieu Perreault. The 24-year-old center has five goals and three assists in his last eight games, including his first career hat trick back on Jan-24 vs. Boston. He is followed by Alexander Semin who has seven points in his last 10, while Brooks Laich is next with five points in 10 games.

Alex Ovechkin has five points in his last seven games and after scoring his 20th goal of the season on Jan. 22 at Pittsburgh, has now reached the 20-goal plateau in each of his first seven seasons in the NHL. He is one of 43 players to have scored 20 or more goals in their first seven seasons and is one of only four active players to have done so (Jaromir Jagr, Teemu Selanne and Ilya Kovalchuk). Ovechkin is also one of just six players to have scored 20 or more goals every season since the 2005-06 campaign (Marian Hossa, Jarome Iginla, Vincent Lecavalier, Daniel Sedin and Kovalchuk). 

QUICK FACTS ON THE CATS:

The Panthers got goals from Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, and Mikael Samuelsson, but were unable to overcome Martin St. Louis' hat trick, as the Lightning doubled up the Panthers 6-3 in Tampa Bay Saturday night. Brian Foster saw his first NHL action stopping the only shot he faced in five minutes of relief for Scott Clemmensen. 

Several Panthers have found success against Washington during their careers. Stephen Weiss (14-26-40 in 45 games) and Dmitry Kulikov (injured, 2-8-10 in 13 games) both have more points against the Caps than any other NHL opponent. 

Brian Campbell has 17 points (4-13-17) in 27 games and Mike Santorelli has six points (5-1-6) in eight games vs. Washington. In the last meeting, Mikael Samuelsson had two goals and Tomas Fleischmann had two assists for Florida. 

Kris Versteeg leads the Panthers in scoring this season, and scored his 20th goal of the season in his return to the lineup from illness Friday and added an assist Saturday to stretch his point streak to match his season high of four games (3-3-6).  

He has 45 points (20-25-45) in 49 games this season, and is ranked T-28th for most points among all NHL players and his 27 points (10-17-27) on the road is fifth best in the NHL. He’s closing in on his career high of 53 points (22-31-53), set in 78 games with Chicago in 2008-09. 

Mikael Samuelsson, who scored the two long goals vs. the Caps last week, is the hottest Cat coming to D.C. He has five points (4-1-5) in a four-game point streak, his longest of the season. He has 12 points (5-7-12) in 18 games with the Panthers after totaling three points (1-2-3) in six games with Vancouver to start the season.  

Former Capital Tomas Fleischmann has recorded four points (2-2-4) in four games. He is now tied for second on the Panthers, with Stephen Weiss, with 38 points (17-21-38) in 51 games.

TRADE DEADLINE:

If the Capitals should lose this game tonight, it may be time to start shaking the roster up. General Manager George McPhee may not  be able to wait until the Feb-27 trade deadline to find help for his team. To hear what deals are possible, tune in tomorrow evening at 6:30 and check out Z-Best Sports Talk on Blog Talk Radio. 

I am the host and will review tonight's game and those trades McPhee may have to make now if the Caps are going to be playoff bound. Follow me on Twitter @zlotsports, friend me on Facebook at AllSports WithZlot. If you have a Caps question, email the show at zbestsports1@gmail.com.

You can also call the show at 646-564-9713

Team media reports used in this article.