WASHINGTON - The Washington Capitals had just returned from a 10-day, six-game road trip against some of the top teams in the NHL. Earlier this season, that might have meant a letdown against Florida, an also-ran in the Southeast Division.
But the road trip not only improved the Capitals' confidence, it improved their character, and last night Washington played a solid game in beating the Panthers, 3-0, at MCI Center.
The win, coupled with Boston's loss last night, clinched at least the sixth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Caps took the lead in the first period on a wonderful goal by defenseman Sergei Gonchar and put the game away in the third period on goals by Michael Nylander and Robert Lang. Washington goalie Olie Kolzig made 31 saves and registered his fourth shutout of the season, and his first since blanking Carolina on March 2.
"You want to keep the momentum going," said Kolzig. "We had a good road trip. Sometimes there's a tendency to go through the motions when you come back ... but we don't want to develop bad habits. It's not a trend we want."
With two games left in the regular season, the Caps continue to pursue Tampa Bay. Washington went 3-2-0-1 on its Canadian trip and is 10-3-1-3 in its past 17 games to move one point behind the Lightning and the third seed that goes with the division title.
The Caps will face Ottawa tomorrow night and Pittsburgh on Saturday, both at home. Tampa Bay still has to play Montreal, Philadelphia and at Atlanta.
Against Florida, the Capitals were playing a team they dominated the last time they met in Washington. It was the biggest points night of the year for Jaromir Jagr, who had three goals and four assists, and the team tied a record for goals in a game with the 12-2 victory.
But in a more recent game in Florida, the Caps escaped with only a 2-1 victory and last night, they again were playing a much more organized team. Despite the 10-goal loss on the road to the Caps, the Panthers have compiled the fifth-best road record in the Eastern Conference (16-14-6-4), 12th in the NHL.
And Florida came in off a 1-1 tie against Tampa Bay, the hottest team in the NHL.
"I think our guys wanted to be at their best," said Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy. "We knew if we kept throwing pucks at the net, some would get through and I was hoping our guys would keep pushing for the insurance goal."
Psychologically, Washington didn't want to let the Panthers hang on. The game started like a footrace, with Kolzig and Florida's Roberto Luongo (30 saves) combining for 27 saves in the first period. Only a wonderfully timed shot by the Caps' Gonchar at 8:15 off a pass from Steve Konowalchuk found the net for a 1-0 Caps lead.
The goal, Gonchar's 18th of the season, tied him for the goal-scoring lead among NHL defensemen with Detroit's Nicklas Lindstrom and Nashville's Andy Delmore.
Florida 0 0 0 - 0
Washington 1 0 2 - 3
First period - 1, Washington, Gonchar 18 (Konowalchuk, Grier), 11:45. Penalties - None. Second period - None. Penalties - Whitfield, Was (holding), 3:47; Cullen, Fla (cross-checking), 13:02. Third period - 2, Washington, Nylander 17 (Miller, Jagr), 15:22. 3, Washington, Lang 21 (Gonchar, Jagr), 18:11. Penalties - None. Shots on goal - Florida 11-9-11-31. Washington 16-6-11-33. Power-play opportunities - Florida 0 of 1; Washington 0 of 1. Goalies - Florida, Luongo 19-34-7 (33 shots-30 saves). Washington, Kolzig 33-24-6 (31-31). A - 17,745 (18,277). T-2:10.