One night the Washington Capitals are outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference, the next they’re atop the Southeast Division. First-year coach Adam Oates, though, knows how easily that can shift in the other direction.
The visiting Capitals try to continue their postseason push Saturday night when the Florida Panthers look to extend their season-best winning streak to four.
Washington (18-17-2) was out of the playoff picture heading into Thursday’s game against the New York Islanders. However, with newcomer Martin Erat making his Capitals debut, they jumped back into the division lead with a 2-1 shootout victory and a 4-1 Winnipeg loss at Montreal.
The Capitals and Jets are tied for the Southeast lead with 38 points, but Washington has two games in hand. Carolina and Tampa Bay are four points back.
“The guys will enjoy it for a little bit, but we’ve got a lot of hockey left,” said Oates, whose team has gone 6-1-1 in the past eight. “I think it’s more important that we focus on the (games this) weekend because it obviously can drop just as fast.”
Oates is certainly aware of that after his team got off to a 2-8-1 start before its surge into playoff contention in this abbreviated season.
Before worrying about Sunday’s home game against the Lightning, the Capitals need to focus on a Panthers team on its best run since a five-game win streak March 11-20, 2012.
Jonathan Huberdeau who leads all rookies with 13 goals, and Shawn Matthias have a team-best four points during the run. Jacob Markstrom has been in net in all three games for Florida (12-19-6), allowing two goals in each of the past two.
He made 39 saves through overtime and stopped all three shootout attempts in a 3-2 road win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday.
“To me, (Markstrom) was the player of the game,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “There were some quality opportunities and Markstrom stood tall when we needed him.”
That wasn’t the case the last time these teams met, a 7-1 Washington victory March 7 in which Markstrom was pulled after surrendering two goals on as many shots in the opening 3:10. It was the quickest a goalie had been removed from a game, other than for injury, in more than a year.
Washington scored two more off Scott Clemmensen in the next 5:00 for its second-quickest four-goal start in club history.
Led by Mike Ribeiro and Alex Ovechkin who have seven and six points, respectively, the Capitals have outscored the Panthers 18-6 in the three matchups this season. That’s allowed Washington to push its win streak over Florida to six, during which it’s outscored the Panthers 28-9.
Washington is seeking a third consecutive road win in the series after Troy Brouwer netted the overtime goal in a 6-5 victory Feb. 12.
Braden Holtby is expected to make an 11th consecutive start for the Capitals. Another solid effort by Holtby, who has posted a 2.00 goals-against average in the past three games, could help move the club closer to a sixth consecutive playoff appearance.
“It’s been a tough season in that aspect - always looking up,” Holtby said. “We all knew we’re capable of (being) where we should be, and that’s at the top. You know, this last little while we’ve all focused on what we need to do, and that’s be successful. And we knew if we do that, we’ll be where we want to be at the end of the year.”