Panthers-Capitals Preview

JEFF BARTL
The Associated Press

The Southeast Division may be qualifying only one team for the postseason, making the back-and-forth battle for first place that much more important down the stretch.

The division-leading Florida Panthers visit the second-place Washington Capitals on Tuesday night as the teams face off for the top spot for the second time in less than a week.

Florida (24-16-11) has the least amount of points of any division leader and failed to extend its lead over Washington after falling 6-3 at Tampa on Saturday.

Washington (27-21-4) couldn't capitalize and fell 4-1 to Boston on Sunday, remaining one point behind Florida. It sits in ninth place in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoff picture.

The Panthers took over the Southeast lead with a 4-2 win over the Capitals on Wednesday, and they'll look to remain in that position by ending a three-game losing streak in D.C.

"It's a big game for us," coach Kevin Dineen told the Panthers' official website. "We were disappointed with the outcome and our overall consistent effort in Tampa, so we're looking at this as a very important game to really get us going for the stretch run."

Washington coach Dale Hunter feels similarly after his team's most recent defeat dropped it to 3-4-2 in the last nine games after winning seven of nine Dec. 28-Jan. 15.

"We know what's on the line," Hunter said. "It'll be (like) a playoff game.

"It's for the lead in our division, so both teams are going to be ready to play. Every point means a lot, so it's important. It's a four-point game against a team that you're battling."

The Capitals may have suffered a setback when Brooks Laich left Sunday's game after being hit into the boards, injuring his knee. Hunter said the injury is not serious and Laich is day to day, though Laich said he's waiting for a specific diagnosis.

"I'm not a doctor, but these things sometimes there's some swelling and you've got to wait to see what happens," Laich said. "I don't think it's anything serious. In the past I've been a fast healer, so we'll see when I wake up."

Laich scored Wednesday's against Florida and also in a 5-4 defeat Dec. 5. Scott Clemmensen made 26 saves for the Panthers on Wednesday and 28 in the December meeting, when Stephen Weiss scored twice and added an assist.

The Capitals beat the Panthers 3-0 in Washington on Oct. 18, as former Panther Tomas Vokoun made 20 saves.

Vokoun, who signed with the Capitals prior to this season, made 26 saves Sunday, and it's unclear if he'll be in net against his former team.

Clemmensen allowed a season-high five goals and was pulled in Saturday's defeat, dropping him to 3-2-2 with a 2.66 goals-against average in his last seven starts. Former Capital Jose Theodore is nursing a knee injury.

Alex Ovechkin missed the most recent meeting while serving the last of a three-game suspension. He has eight goals and 11 assists in his last 16 games against the Panthers.

Florida hasn't beaten Washington in three straight meetings since Nov. 15-28, 2007.