WASHINGTON — Playing with a sense of urgency usually attached to a playoff game, the Washington Capitals needed only 13 seconds to take the lead in their first-place showdown with the Florida Panthers.
Thanks to a strong goaltending performance by Tomas Vokoun, that was all the offense Washington needed in a 4-0 victory Tuesday night.
Mathieu Perreault scored shortly after the opening faceoff and Vokoun stopped 42 shots in his fourth shutout of the season, the second against Florida. Alex Ovechkin scored twice for the Capitals, who supplanted Florida atop the Southeast Division.
Jason Chimera contributed a goal and an assist for Washington, which has 60 points. Florida is at 59 with a game in hand.
“We knew what was on the line tonight,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. “These are four-point games, playoff games, and we’re battling with Florida.”
Winning the Southeast title is imperative to both teams, because the runner-up may not end up among the eight Eastern Conference teams that qualify for the playoffs.
With the victory, the Capitals jumped from ninth place to the third seed. And now Florida is ninth, on the outside looking in.
“We got beat by the better hockey team tonight,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “We need to understand that, fess up, recognize that our game has to improve and move on.”
The Panthers were coming off a 6-3 loss to Tampa Bay. It’s only the second time this season they dropped two in a row in regulation; the other time was in October.
“We have to stay positive, and we have to up our level of play,” Florida defenseman Brian Campbell said. “Some nights we’re there. Other nights we’re not.”