WASHINGTON - Less than 90 seconds into the game, the Washington Capitals scored with an extra man on the ice. With less than a minute to go in the first period, they did it again.
If the last few games are any indication, a potentially powerful power play is awakening from its season-long slumber just in time for the playoffs.
Mike Knuble and Jason Chimera did the damage Wednesday night and the Capitals moved to the brink of clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference with a 5-2 victory over the Florida Panthers.
Washington has won four straight games and can drop out of first place only if it loses in regulation to Florida on Saturday and if the Philadelphia Flyers win their last two games.
There is one category in which the Capitals won't repeat. Last season, they were far and away the best power-play team in the league, amassing 79 goals with the extra man. This season, they have a mysteriously mediocre 46—despite the team's solid play over the second half of the season—but five have come in the last three games, their best spurt since around Halloween.
"That's what we're accustomed to, like, if we didn't take a year off," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "The great thing about our team last year was that we could put that fear, where they didn't want to play their physical game because our power play was good. If we could ever get that to work on a consistent basis—like it was in Toronto last night; like it was here tonight—then, I think, it gives you another element."
Sean Collins, called up over the weekend because of injuries to several Washington defencemen, padded the lead in the second period with his second career NHL goal. Matt Hendricks made it 4-0 in the third period, and Alex Ovechkin scored his 301st NHL goal into an empty net against a Panthers team that has lost nine straight.
Ovechkin also had two assists, giving him eight points in the last four games. Semyon Varlamov, competing with Michal Neuvirth for the right to start the Capitals' playoff opener next week, made 31 saves as the Capitals wrapped up their regular season home schedule with a 25-8-8 record.
While the No. 1 seed is a nice feather in the Caps' cap, Washington cares more about making up for its post-season disappointments of recent seasons—and it showed in the lineup Boudreau put on the ice. Jason Arnott and Scott Hannan were given the night off, as was Alexander Semin, who has been nursing an injury. The coach wants everyone healthy and fresh for next week.
"A week from now, the real show starts," centre Brooks Laich said.
If anything, Wednesday's power-play goals were almost too easy—Knuble and Chimera simply skated to the net and waited for the puck, unfettered by any Panthers defenceman. Laich skated down the left flank before supplying the pass to Knuble just 1:20 into the game, while Nicklas Backstrom fed Chimera from behind the net in the final minute of the period.
"You knew we were going to score goals in the power play; it's just a matter of time," Chimera said, "so we've just got to keep it rolling."
After that, the Capitals were left to practice the new defensive philosophy they adopted midway through the season, clamping down on the Panthers until game's final minutes despite missing injured regular defencemen Mike Green, Tom Poti and Dennis Wideman. David Booth scored on a power play with 6:16 left in the game, and Mike Santorelli cut the deficit to two with 1:31 remaining and the goaltender pulled.
Those late goals didn't mean much to Panthers coach Peter DeBoer, who said Ryan Carter suffered a concussion in the third period. Carter was hurt when he was knocked into the boards by Capitals defenceman John Erskine.
"You can look for silver linings. You know what? We're losing games, that's the bottom line," DeBoer said. "So I don't have a lot of good to say."
NOTES: Florida's Scott Clemmensen made 20 saves in his fourth straight start in place of Tomas Vokoun, who remains out with a back injury. ... Collins' only previous NHL goal came on New Year's Day of 2009. ... Boudreau said Green (concussion) could return to action in Saturday's regular-season finale at Florida. "He's ready to play, if we decide to play him," Boudreau said. Green hasn't appeared in a game since a brief appearance against the Rangers on Feb. 25; before that, he hadn't played since Feb. 12. ... Boudreau said he's "got to believe" Wideman (leg injury) will miss at least the first round of the playoffs. "This time next week, we'll know a lot more than we know now. It all depends on how his rehab goes and how quick he takes to it," Boudreau said. ... Florida C Stephen Weiss missed his second straight game with a groin injury. ... The Capitals are 39-0-3 when scoring three or more goals. ... Washington ended a streak of four straight games that went to overtime. ... The Capitals sold out every home game for the second straight season.