Capitals-Panthers Preview

The Associated Press

Despite a gritty effort, the road-weary Washington Capitals let one slip away in their first game back following All-Star weekend.

They're all but certain to have another hard-fought battle during Wednesday night's matchup with the Florida Panthers.

With superstar Alex Ovechkin serving the last of a three-game suspension, the visiting Capitals square off against the Panthers with first place in the Southeast Division on the line.

Thanks in large part to Mathieu Perreault's first career hat trick, Washington (26-19-4) didn't miss a beat without Ovechkin during a 5-3 win over Boston right before the break. It was a different story Tuesday, however, when the Capitals dropped to 4-10-3 over their last 17 road games with a 4-3 overtime loss at Tampa Bay.

Washington rallied from a two-goal deficit over the second and third periods, but its power play went 0 for 3 - the sixth time in seven games it has failed to score with the man advantage.

"For sure it's different when usually your power play (centers) around (Ovechkin) and then he's not there," Perreault said. "We gotta try to do different things. We didn't get much going tonight, we gotta get better at it."

Unfortunately for the Capitals, there isn't much time to regroup as they head into Wednesday's showdown with the Panthers (22-15-11). With 56 points, Washington leads Florida by one in the Southeast.

"We just roll tonight into (Wednesday). Pretty much, you leave this game here tonight," center Brooks Laich said. "We have a big opponent (Wednesday), big game (Wednesday) - they're sitting there resting tonight waiting for us to come in, so we gotta roll this effort right into (Wednesday) night."

With seven days off between games, the Panthers are hoping to put a disappointing 1-2-3 stretch behind them.

Florida failed to carry any momentum into the break, suffering a 3-2 shootout loss to Philadelphia on Jan. 24. Scott Clemmensen made 35 saves, but the Panthers dropped to 3-6 in shootouts and 4-11 in games going beyond regulation.

"It was a close game but it ticks you off when you lose. We have to find ways to win those again," forward Kris Versteeg told the team's official website. "You can't be throwing away so many points. We have to find a way."

While Clemmensen has seen more action of late with Jose Theodore dealing with a strained right MCL, Theodore remains No. 1 on the depth chart and could start in goal.

Not yet fully recovered from his injury, Theodore has gone 0-1-1 with a 3.43 goals-against average in two road games since sitting out the first two-plus weeks of January. Theodore, though, is 6-1-2 with a 2.03 GAA over his last 11 games at BankAtlantic Center.

Leading the team with 43 points, Versteeg missed his second straight practice with flu-like symptoms Tuesday and is considered a game-time decision.

Left wing Marco Sturm (concussion), meanwhile, could make his return to the ice following a 14-game absence.

Washington's Tomas Vokoun turned away 27 shots Tuesday, dropping to 0-3-1 with a 4.06 GAA over his last four road contests.

Vokoun, who spent the previous four seasons with the Panthers, could make his first start at Florida since signing with the Capitals in the offseason. He posted a 20-save shutout against his former team at home Oct. 18.

Ovechkin is eligible to return Saturday when the Capitals conclude a three-game trip at Montreal. He was suspended for a hit on Pittsburgh's Zbynek Michalek in a 4-3 overtime loss Jan. 22.

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