Capitals-Panthers Preview

The Washington Capitals haven’t won since their previous meeting

with the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers last week.

Another victory would significantly tighten the division

race.

The Capitals look to avoid matching their longest slide of the

season when they try to beat the Panthers on the road for the first

time in almost a year Friday night.

Washington (28-23-5) has won four straight Southeast titles, but

Florida (27-18-11) is trying to end that run.

The Capitals are second to the Panthers in the division race,

trailing by four points. They’re also ninth in the Eastern

Conference, three points behind Toronto for the final playoff

spot.

Washington hasn’t helped its cause to return to the playoffs,

losing three in a row since a 4-0 home win against Florida on Feb.

7.

The Capitals dropped a season-high four straight Nov. 25-Dec. 1,

and their current slide continued with a 5-3 loss at home to San

Jose on Monday.

They’ll try to halt the skid as they open a four-game road trip

with the first three coming against division foes.

“This road trip is very important for us,” center Marcus

Johansson said. “We have to win more games than we are. It’s

getting tight now. We have to have a real good finish from here on

until the end of the regular season. Every game is going to be very

important, even more against a team that we’re really battling with

for first place.”

Washington has lost three in a row at BankAtlantic Center,

including two visits this season after falling 4-2 on Feb. 1.

Another strong performance from Alex Ovechkin, the team leader

with 23 goals and 44 points, might help change that. The star left

wing scored twice against the Panthers last week after missing the

last visit to Sunrise, Fla., while serving a three-game suspension

for a hit on Pittsburgh’s Zbynek Michalek.

Ovechkin has 13 goals and 11 assists in 20 road meetings with

the Panthers but no points in the last two.

Florida would like to keep it that way as it tries to rebound

from Wednesday’s 6-2 loss to visiting Ottawa, snapping a three-game

winning streak in the opener of four straight at home.

Tomas Fleischmann, a member of the Capitals from 2005-11, has

nine points in his last nine contests and five during a four-game

streak. Despite that surge, the left wing was held without a point

at Washington on Feb. 7 but registered two assists in the previous

meeting in Florida.

Linemate Kris Versteeg, the team leader with 22 goals and 48

points, has been kept off the scoresheet in his last three games

versus the Capitals. His next goal will set a career high, while

his 16 points on the power play tie his personal-best from 2008-09

with Chicago.

Versteeg’s success is one reason the Panthers are atop the

division as they try to reach the postseason for the first time

since the 1999-2000 season.

“I’ve always expected to be a player that can play good minutes

and play in certain situations,” Versteeg said. “I’ve been given

the opportunity here, where in the past you haven’t been given it.

It’s been fun this year, you’ve been getting a lot of trust put

into you by the coach, so that helps.”