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Ovechkin hat-trick leads Caps to season sweep of Panthers

The SportsXchange

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Washington Capitals kept pace with the Winnipeg Jets -- a winner earlier in the day against the Philadelphia Flyers -- for the Southeast Division title with a 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers on Saturday night in front of 16,886 at the BB&T Center.

Washington (19-17-2) was led by superstar winger Alex Ovechkin, who scored a hat trick to fuel the win.

The Capitals continued their dominance of rival Florida (12-20-6) and regained the division lead in the process with 10 games remaining.

In a matchup with playoff implications, the Panthers -- winners of three consecutive games -- entered Saturday eight points behind the Capitals in the standings. Four points separated four teams.

Since opening the season 2-8-1, the Capitals are 17-9-1, including going 8-2-1 over the last 11 games as they captured their first division lead of 2013.

"We know where we stand right now and how important these wins are for us right now," said defenseman Mike Green, whose team improved to 11-3 against division opponents. "We're where we want to be right now and we have to stay there."

Checked into the boards by defenseman Erik Gudbranson, new Caps' forward Martin Erat needed help off the ice from a teammate and trainer with 5:23 remaining in the first.

Gudbranson received five minutes for boarding and a game misconduct, while Erat, acquired Wednesday in a trade with Nashville, remained out with a lower-body injury. He will be re-evaluated Sunday morning.

Ovechkin's NHL-leading 13th power-play goal handed the Capitals a 1-0 lead with 4:14 left in the first period.

Forward Nicklas Backstrom passed to forward Mike Ribeiro, who sent a cross from the side of the net to Ovechkin, who finished the one-timer for his 21st goal of the season.

Heading into the game, Washington led the league with a 24.2 percent power-play percentage. Florida held the worst penalty kill at 74.8 percent.

"We made a couple of mistakes like everybody (which is) expected on the road," Capitals coach Adam Oates said. "We handled it, gradually turned the tide and big power play for us. Five-minute power play you obviously want to score a goal during that -- and we did. Got us a little life. Got one to start the second period, so the game's going in our favor there. We kept on going."

The Capitals extended the lead with a three-goal second period.

Just 43 seconds into the second, Washington capitalized on another power-play goal.

Forward Quinton Howden's hooking penalty with five seconds left in the first carried over after intermission. Green's slap shot, set up on a pass from Ovechkin, hit the left post and settled behind goaltender Jacob Markstrom.

Ribeiro tipped the puck in for his 12th of the season.

Less than two minutes later Ovechkin scored his second goal.

Following a feed from Backstrom, Ovechkin skated toward two defensemen -- momentarily losing the puck but quickly recovering it to the right of Filip Kuba -- before firing off a wrist shot that beat Markstrom's glove side.

Ovechkin finished off the the hat trick with his second power-play goal, on assists from Johansson and Backstrom, at 14:22.

"Their power play is good and they score when they get the chance," Markstrom said.

The Panthers answered with their own three-goal third period.

Forward Tomas Kopecky put the Panthers on the scoreboard 6:45 into the third with his 14th goal of the season, a one-timer from former Capital Tomas Fleischmann.

Two minutes later, Peter Mueller's power-play goal -- his eighth goal of the season -- trimmed the deficit to 4-2.

Kopecky added a goal with 32.7 seconds to go with an extra skater on the ice, but that was as close at the Panthers could get.

"For some reason they play us very well or we just don't play well against them," Panthers' defenseman Brian Campbell said. "You have to find a way against a team like that."

With Saturday's victory, the Capitals sweep the season series, 4-0, for the first time since 2009-10. They have now won seven in a row, outscoring the Panthers 32-12 during that stretch.

"We don't have to say much," Ovechkin said. "Everybody understands right now we can't give up the points. We have to totally forget our third period. Tomorrow when we play Tampa it's going to be different team, different players. We have to be focused all 60 minutes."

NOTES: Panthers' center Nick Bjugstad made his NHL debut. The 2010 19th overall pick, who spent the past three years at the University of Minnesota, became the seventh Florida player this season to debut. ... Center Scott Timmins was recalled from the AHL San Antonio Rampage. ... Capitals' defenseman Tom Poti (back) missed his 10th game. Center Brooks Laich, who left late in Thursday's game with a lower-body injury, was also scratched. ... Left winger Jason Chimera played in his 700th NHL game. ... Up next, both teams finish the second half of back-to-backs Sunday night. The Capitals remain in the Sunshine State against the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the Panthers host the Ottawa Senators.
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