WASHINGTON -- Slowly but surely, the Washington Capitals are climbing their way back into playoff contention.
Seven players scored goals and Braden Holtby calmly steered aside 29 of 30 shots Thursday night as the Capitals routed the injury-plagued Florida Panthers 7-1 in front of a sellout crowd at Verizon Center.
The Capitals are now 8-3-0 after a dreadful 2-8-1 start and have moved two points past the Panthers in the Eastern Conference standings with 21 points. They are five points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers in their pursuit for a playoff spot.
"We started so bad it was a big hole to climb out of and it didn't look good," Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We're just happy we're winning games right now. We don't want to be a .500 team; we want to be much above that."
The Panthers, on the other hand, lost for the 11th time in 14 games. And they'll need to turn around and face the Winnipeg Jets at home on Friday.
"We are in a situation where we have to play for 60 minutes," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "I think (the Capitals) smell blood when we come in here. If they can get to us early, things will start rolling."
During their 8-3-0 stretch, the Capitals have scored 41 goals, including 17 in three wins against the Panthers.
After an emotional come-from-behind win over the Boston Bruins two nights earlier, the Capitals wanted to avoid a letdown and the Panthers wanted to build on their impressive 4-1 win in Winnipeg.
Panthers goaltender Jacob Markstrom, recalled from San Antonio on March 3 after an injury to Jose Theodore, looked strong in that win over the Jets. But the 23-year-old Swede lasted just 3 minutes, 10 seconds against the Capitals, allowing two goals on the first two shots he faced before Florida coach Kevin Dineen angrily yanked him for veteran Scott Clemmensen.
"We just wanted to keep shooting," said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who finished with a goal and two assists.
Dineen's move backfired when the Capitals scored goals on two of their first six shots against Clemmensen.
It all started just 1:58 into the game when Washington defenseman John Erskine bombed a shot from the blue line that bounced off the right pad of Markstrom and under his right arm.
When Wojtek Wolski stuffed in a wraparound to make it 2-0 just 72 seconds later, that was enough for Dineen, who made the quick hook and brought in Clemmenssen, who had given up nine goals in his previous two appearances.
The Capitals were no kinder to Clemmenssen. After a faceoff win by Nicklas Backstrom, defenseman John Carlson blasted a slap shot past Clemmenssen for his fourth goal of the season and a 3-0 lead at the 5:38 mark.
Washington made it 4-0 on its eighth shot of the game when Mike Ribeiro teed up a pass from Ovechkin from the left circle for his ninth of the season, tying him with Troy Brouwer.
"All you can do in those moments is know that if they scored four in a period we certainly can do it," said Jack Skille, who scored the Panthers' lone goal. "You've got to believe in yourselves at that point and not give up."
That was all the Capitals scored in that first period, but when Panthers forward Tyson Strachan took a five-minute major for a blindside hit on Capitals forward Jason Chimera midway through the second period, the Caps padded their lead on Ovechkin's ninth of the season and sixth on the power play.
Capitals coach Adam Oates said he thought Strachan's hit was "a little late" but was happy that Chimera returned.
Eric Fehr kept the rout going when he scored his sixth of the season and first on the man-advantage, with 4:08 gone in the third period.
The Panthers ruins Holtby's shutout bid 10:49 into the third period when Skille wristed a shot inside the left post for his third goal of the season.
Mathieu Perreault finished off the goalfest when he scored with 59 seconds remaining.
"That might only happen once a year," Ovechkin said, "but we'll take it."
NOTES: Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau entered the game leading all NHL rookies with 11 goals. The Panthers were without goaltender Jose Theodore; forwards Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Scottie Upshall; and defensemen Ed Jovanovski, Mike Weaver, Michael Caruso and Dmitry Kulikov. The Capitals were without defenseman Mike Green and forward Brooks Laich. ... The Capitals entered the game having been outscored 45-32 in the first two periods, but they had outscored opponents 25-16 in the third. ... The Capitals return to action Saturday afternoon when they visit the New York Islanders in the first half of a back-to-back set that concludes Sunday at home against the New York Rangers. The Panthers return home to face the Winnipeg Jets on Friday for the start of a three-game homestand that continues with games against the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning.