WASHINGTON - Playing with a sense of urgency usually attached to a playoff game, the Washington Capitals needed only 13 seconds to take the lead in their first-place showdown with the Florida Panthers.
Thanks to a strong goaltending performance by Tomas Vokoun, that was all the offence Washington needed in a 4-0 victory Tuesday night.
Mathieu Perreault scored shortly after the opening faceoff and Vokoun stopped 42 shots in his fourth shutout of the season, the second against Florida. Alex Ovechkin scored twice for the Capitals, who supplanted Florida atop the Southeast Division.
Jason Chimera contributed a goal and an assist for Washington, which has 60 points. Florida is at 59 with a game in hand.
"We knew what was on the line tonight," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "These are four-point games, playoff games, and we're battling with Florida."
Winning the Southeast title is imperative to both teams, because the runner-up may not end up among the eight Eastern Conference teams that qualify for the playoffs.
With the victory, the Capitals jumped from ninth place to the third seed. And now Florida is ninth, on the outside looking in.
"We got beat by the better hockey team tonight," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "We need to understand that, fess up, recognize that our game has to improve and move on."
The Panthers were coming off a 6-3 loss to Tampa Bay. It's only the second time this season they dropped two in a row in regulation; the other time was in October.
"We have to stay positive, and we have to up our level of play," Florida defenceman Brian Campbell said. "Some nights we're there. Other nights we're not."
Perreault set the tone in this showdown with his rapid-fire goal. Chimera was skating along the backboards when he sent a pass to Perreault that eluded two Panthers positioned in front of the net. Perreault then beat goalie Scott Clemmensen with a shot from the left side.
"You never like to get scored on early like that," Florida forward Matt Bradley said. "Give them credit because they came out with a lot of jump."
It was a quick score, but not even close to the fastest goal in Capitals history—eight seconds, a mark shared by Alexander Semin and Gaetan Duchesne.
Ovechkin added a power-play goal at 9:21 of the first period, and the onslaught continued after the first intermission.
Chimera got a short-handed goal by tapping in an easy rebound at 1:01 of the second period after Clemmensen left the puck sitting in the crease.
"Anytime you give up a short-handed goal, the momentum changes," Campbell said. "It's unacceptable."
Ovechkin made it 4-0 at 11:47, firing a high-rising wrist shot that whisked past Clemmensen just inside the left post. It was his 22nd goal of the season and his fifth two-goal game, the first since Dec. 31.
"I think everybody today was pretty good," Ovechkin said. "We (had a) pretty good start, and after that Tomas played unbelievable today. He gave us a chance to win the game."
Much earlier, Washington received a morale boost when centre Brooks Laich suited up and joined the team on the ice. Laich, who was on crutches after hurting his left knee Sunday in a loss to Boston, showed no signs of the injury during his shifts against Florida.
Laich received limited playing time, but his presence in the lineup was instrumental for a team playing with plenty of emotion.
"He's a warrior," Hunter said. "You see a guy sucking it up and doing what he can for the team—he gave us everything he had."
NOTES: It was the fourth meeting this season between the teams. Each has won twice on home ice. ... Florida's Kris Versteeg played in his 300th career game. ... Perreault has nine points in his last nine games.