PLAYING LIKE IT’S LATE APRIL:

The Washington Capitals wanted to treat their game vs. the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night as a must win game. Head coach Dale Hunter wanted his squad to bring playoff intensity to last night's contest, and that is exactly what his team did in shutting out the Panthers 4-0 at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C.

The win allowed the Caps to regain first place in the Southeast division and catapulted them from ninth and out of the playoff picture to the No.3 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Led by former Panther Tomas Vokoun, and team captain Alexander Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals were intense, and focused from the start. In fact, you couldn't get much more focused any quicker than Washington did as Mathieu Perreault scored his sixth goal since Jan-18 just 13-seconds into the contest.

Hunter’s squad seemed as if they were on a mission to accomplish a checklist of issues that have been plaguing the capitals since Hunter took over on Nov-29.

While the Caps wouldn't be able to fix all of these issues with one good performance, they most certainly can use the victory over the cats as a building block heading into the final 29 games of the season.

This checklist I am referring to would include issues like improving special teams, playing a more consistent 1-2-2 trap, taking away the middle of the slot a little better each game. It would also include getting Alex Ovechkin back on track and playing like he was before his three game suspension prior to the All-Star break.

All things considered, it's safe to say that a check mark can be placed next to each Item, at least for last night's contest. However, the Capitals are going to have to build on their Tuesday night win if they are to establish any momentum. It is a good bet that GM George McPhee has already been on the phones as the trade deadline is just 21 days away.

STARTING FAST AND FINSIHING STRONG:

As stated above, the Capitals scored just 13 seconds into the game, which marked the fastest goal of the season to start a game. Mathieu Perrault’s ninth goal of the season was accomplished 58-seconds quicker than Alex Ovechkin’s goal 1:11 into the Caps 3-1 victory over the Calgary Flames on Jan-3.

Perreault, who was considered one of the top residents in head coach Dale Hunters dog house less than three weeks ago, now has 29 more games to build on his already accomplished career highs in goals (9), assists (7), and points (16). The former sixth round (177th overall) pick of the Capitals during the 2006 NHL entry draft centered the starting line of Alex Semin, and Jason Chimera vs. Florida.

The Capitals were one of the slowest starting teams in the NHL for most of last season, and part of this season. However, they have done a 360 degree turnaround under Dale Hunter. With Hunters trapping style of play, Washington is becoming better at forcing teams into mistakes while allowing them to gain certain areas of the ice. The style of trap the Capitals play is difficult to solve once a lead is established. 

The Capitals are 14-1-1 this season (.875) when leading after the first period, which is the second best winning percentage in the NHL. The Caps rock the red even more when leading after two periods, Washington is one of four teams that have not lost when leading after two periods this season with a 17-0-0 mark. Their 58 third-period goals are tied for fifth in the league.

So go ahead and place a check mark in that box, because the Caps are consistently starting games faster than they did under Bruce Boudreau.  If you remember last season, the Caps were the NHL’s top team winning games when trailing after one period. Washington trailed after the first intermission 29 times last season and came back to win 15 of those contests.

This season, Washington has trailed 20 times after one period and is 6-13-1 in those games.

The Caps are also using the shot block as a tool of the trade under Hunter. Washington blocked 17 more shots last night after they set a single-game high for blocked shots in Sunday’s game vs. Boston, blocking 28 Bruin attempts. Sunday 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

VOKOUN STAYS PERFECT VS. HIS OLD TEAM:

Not on the checklist, but needing to be accomplished was helping the Caps No.1 goalie forget about Sunday’s 4-1 home loss to the Boston Bruins. Vokoun was brilliant on Tuesday and remained perfect vs. his old team this season.  He stopped 20-Florida shots and helped the Caps start the season 5-0-0 with a win on Oct-18 in D.C, and last night, Vokoun turned away 42 more of his former team’s shots, many in spectacular fashion.

Vokoun continued his impressive overall play at home this season where he is now 16-5-0 with a .929 save percentage, and 2.07 goals against average. Vokoun recorded his 22nd victory last night in his 37th start of the season. The 14-year veteran did not win No. 22 until his 57th start last season, which occurred on the season’s final day. Ironically, that win was a 1-0 decision over the team Vokoun plays for this season.

Vooks two shutouts vs. the Cats this season makes Dale Hunters decision to start Michael Neuvirth last Wednesday in Florida, and back in early December, both losses, look like a rookie head coaching mistake. Neuvy allowed three soft goals in the early December contest and two long goals to the Panthers Mikael Samuelsson last week.

It is hard to imagine, but the four points lost during those two games could loom very larger in April. You need not have a long term memory to know that at least two teams have failed to make the playoffs on the final day of the season in each of the last three years. Four, three, or even two points could be the difference between a Southeast title, and a No.9 finish, which would cause a very long off-season in the District.

SPECIAL TEAMS WITH A MUCH NEEDED SOLID NIGHT:

Heading into last night’s game the Caps were in the middle of a power outage on the power play. Washington was 0-for-19 prior to facing the Panthers on Tuesday night, and had just six power play goals since the start of the new calendar year. The Capitals scored once on the power play, and once while down a man. Alex Ovechkin made the contest 2-0 when he scored his 21st goal of the season, and ninth on the power play. That is two more than he had last season.

Jason Chimera scored the Caps third goal of the game, which came as his team was a man down.  With Dennis Wideman in the box finishing a first period carry-over slashing penalty, the Caps caught an odd man rush.

John Carlson fired a shot after taking a pass from Matt Hendricks, and after Cats back stopper Scott Clemmensen failed to control the rebound, Chimera, who was standing alone in front, collected the loose puck and deposited it into what was essentially an empty goal mouth.

The goal was eerily similar to the one Chimmy scored to beat the New York Rangers in the second overtime during Game 4 of the playoffs last season. Chimera now has 15 goals, which is two shy of his career best 17 he scored back in the 05-06 season for the Columbus Blue jackets. .

The Capitals also killed off all four Florida power plays on the night, and are now 17-6-0 this season when they score a power-play goal, and 12-1-0 when scoring a power-play goal and not allowing one. Washington’s 24.4% power play success rate on home ice is the second best rate in the NHL. Washington is fifth best in the league at killing penalties in the confines of the big phone booth. The Capitals have killed off 87.1% of the opposition’s power play chances on home ice. 

SPEAKING OF OVECHKIN: 

Alexander Ovechkin needed a game or two, but the Great 8 seems to be finding the shot he had prior to his suspension just before the All-Star break. Ovie notched his 21st and 22nd goal last night which is three more than he had through 50 games last season. However, if history is indeed a teacher, and stats never lie, then the Winnipeg Jets, New York Rangers, and San Jose Sharks should prepare for the Gr8test show on ice.

Since the start of the 2009 season, Ovechkin has 28-goals and 37 assists in the three games following a two-goal performance. That’s a span of 43 games. On four occasions, Ovechkin followed up a two-goal game with at least two more the next time out on the ice. In 24 of those 43 contests, Ovie recorded no less than two points during the game.

The Caps team captain is now just 10 goals shy of his output from all of last season, but is on pace for a career low in points. Through 50 games last season Ovechkin had 51 points compared to just 41 through 50 games this season. He is on pace to score 35 goals, and record a career low 65-points.

Ovechkin will need to catch fire if Washington is to put together a streak similar to the one that led them to their second straight regular season eastern conference title last season. Washington was 16-4-1 from Feb-21 through the end of the season. During that span, Ovechkin played in 18 of the Caps 21 games and scored nine goals and recorded 15 assists.

WINNING THE LITTLE BATTLES LEAD TO OVERALL VICTORY: 

According to the caps web site, Washington outhit the Panthers 31-19 on the night. Troy Brouwer, who entered the game seventh in the NHL with 174 hits, led the way with five while Joel Ward and Marcus Johansson each had four. Keith Aucoin and Karl Alzner were the only Capitals who were not credited with at least one hit in the game. 

Winning the faceoff battle is important as well, and Washington dominated the red dot on Tuesday night. The Caps won 32 of the 57 face-offs in the game with Brooks Laich, who was a game-time decision, and Mathieu Perreault combining to win 13 draws.

Winning stat battles such as face-offs and hitting for the game are catalysts for winning the overall war. You can bet that with 29 games remaining in the season, most of the games down the stretch will be of the war variety. 

MAKING UP GROUND: 

The Capitals once trailed the Panthers by seven points in early December for the Southeast lead. Since Dec. 6, Washington has gone 15-9-3 (33 points) while Florida has gone 9-9-7 (25 points). The loss to Washington on Tuesday night was just the second time this season this season the Panthers have dropped two straight games in regulation.

The Caps had a hand in both sets of games this season.

Florida dropped a 6-3 decision to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday leading to the Caps win on Tuesday, and early this season, Florida was shutout by Washington and then lost to the Buffalo Sabres on home ice two nights later.

According to Mike Vogel, the Panthers have yet to win more than three consecutive games this season, but they also have yet to go as many as three consecutive games without recording a point. Washington is now 10-3-0 against Florida in their last 13 home games vs. the Panthers. In those 13 home games, the Capitals have outscored Florida 48-30 and have not lost at Verizon Center since Dec. 9, 2010.

Washington is now 18-8-1 against the Southeast Division-rival Panthers over the last 27 games, outscoring them 94-68 in that span. 

NEXT UP:

The Capitals will host the Winnipeg Jets (25-24-6) tomorrow night, as the Panthers head back to the Sunshine State to host the Los Angeles Kings (26-18-10). The former Thrashers are currently 10th in the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings.

Heading into Wednesday night’s games, the Jets are five points behind the eighth-place Ottawa Senators, but only four points behind Washington for the top spot in the Southeast Division. The Jets have played two more games than the Capitals and one fewer than the Senators.

Winnipeg plays as poorly as the Caps on the road this season. The Jets are 9-16-4 away from Winnipeg, and are 4-8 in their last 12 road games. During that span of games, the Jets have not been able to find a connecting flight on offense, and are allowing a ton of frequent flyer miles up and down the ice. Winnipeg has also been outscored by a 2-to-1 margin (33-15) during that time.

Like the Caps, the Jets have been struggling on the power play. Winnipeg is now 0-for-18 on the power play in their last seven-plus games, and has not scored an extra man helper on the road in over a month. Winnipeg is 0-for-23 on the power play in its last nine road games. The Jets’ last power play goal on the road came in a 2-1 overtime win against the Sabres in Buffalo on Jan. 7.

Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec is expected to get the start vs. the Caps. The Kladno, Czechoslovakian native has appeared in 45 of the Jets 55 games this season. Pavelec is 5-9-1 lifetime, but is 4-2-1 with two shutouts, and 1.27 goals against average since the start of last season Vs. the Capitals. During his career at Verizon Center, Pavelec is 1-5-1 in seven games (six starts) with a 3.34 GAA and a .906 save pct.

In four starts since the All-Star break, Pavelec is 3-1 with a 1.46 GAA and a .940 save pct. Pavelec has faced 1,315 shots this season, the fourth-highest total in the NHL.

The Jets are led on offense by Blake Wheeler, who has 36 points this season. Winnipeg's leading goal scorer is 20-year-old sensation, Evander Kane. The former first round pick (fourth overall) of the Atlanta Thrashers has 18-goals and 31 points this season. Kane is one shy of his total from last season.

Former Blackhawk defenseman Dustin Byfuglien ledas all Jets defenders with 25-points.