by Cheryl Nichols

The 2010-2011 Southeast Division Champion Washington Capitals hosted the Florida Panthers for the last regular season game at the Verizon Center.  The Caps wrapped up Fan Appreciation Week with a 5-2 win over the Panthers.

The Caps jumped on Florida early with two power play goals in the first period, and made sure they stayed down, adding two more before garbage time late in the third.  Mike Knuble redirected a Brooks Laich pass for his 24th of the season to start the scoring.  Jason Chimera (10), Sean Collins (1), Matt Hendricks (9) and Alex Ovechkin (32) all tallied for the red.

With the win, the Capitals now have a four-point lead over the Philadelphia Flyers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Caps can clinch the top spot in the East with a Philadelphia loss on Friday in Buffalo or by earning a single point in Saturday’s regular season finale in Florida.

While it wasn't too shocking to see that Alex Semin was scratched again after missing the last game, it was a bit of a surprise to see Jason Arnott and Scott Hannan scratched.  Caps Head Coach Bruce Boudreau did not ask them if they wanted to sit, he just thought that they needed to rest. He said after the game, "We still have to wait to see what’s at stake on Saturday before we start taking anything for granted. We are watching the scoreboards and seeing what’s going on."

The power play finally looks on track. The Caps have scored five power play goals in their last three games. Knuble and Chimera's goals both came on the power play goal in the first period of last night's game, when the Caps really took control against an overmatched Panthers squad playing out the string.

Sean Collins scored his first goal of the season -- his second career goal  -- in the second period assisted by Ovechkin. Collins' previous NHL goal was over two years on Jan. 1, 2009 against Tampa Bay and was also assisted by The Great Eight.  "I always want to be on the ice with him [Ovi]," Collins said.  "When I get the puck usually my first option is to look for Ovi."

All Photos 2011 © Cheryl Nichols Photography/Caps News Network. All Rights Reserved.
Semyon Varlamov made 31 saves and looked great in net, earning first star honors from the media.  Boudreau was asked about his confidence in this year's goalie situation going into the playoffs and he said, “We can put one of three guys in and I know we are going to get a good game. I’m not knocking anyone else, but that is the way I feel.”

In the clubhouse after the game, a couple of players expressed their thoughts about the playoffs.  Brooks Laich explained, “We’re prepared for Saturday’s game and after that, we’ll do a little scoreboard watching to find out who we’re going to play. Monday and Tuesday we’ll have some solid practices and ramp it up for Wednesday or Thursday, whenever it is.”  He went on to say, "“We feel [like] we have a very good hockey team. We’ve shown it in the past few years in the regular season, but now we have to take the next step and that’s playoff success.”

Brooks Laich stretching during pre-game warmups (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)
Are the Caps ready for the playoffs? Matt Hendricks believes yes. "“I think so. We had a real big hiccup in the first period. We gave up way too many opportunities, but we had Varly [Semyon Varlamov] in net and he did a great job keeping us in the game. After that, I think we took over and controlled it.” 

And about retaining the Eastern Conference title?  “That is definitely one of the long term goals we set out at the beginning of the season and to be this close with 60 minutes of hockey left, it’s worth going for.”

Washington closes out the regular season home schedule with the best winning percentage on home ice (25-8-8) and the least home losses (8) in the NHL. The Caps have finished in the top three in home record in each of the past three seasons, pacing the league with a 30-5-6 record last year and finishing third in 2008-09 (29-9-3). Their 84 wins at home in the last three seasons are tops in the league during that span.


Defenseman Mike Green, who has missed 25 of the last 27 games with concussion-like symptoms, could return to the ice for Saturday's game in Florida.  He's cleared all the tests required by the NHL for his return per the league's protocol, but the Caps elected to keep him out of Wednesday's game. 

Getting the playmaker back on the blue line and power play should provide a boost to the team as they enter the playoffs.


3. Semyon Varlamov.  31 saves on 33 shots.  The two goals came late and at extra-strength.  Saved everything he should have.  Looked lke he was moving around fine.
2. Brooks Laich.  Two assists, plus-2.  He had his wheels going tonight and dominated in the dot, winning 9-of-12.  He's a center.
1. Alex Ovechkin. Goal, two assists, plus-2.  His playmaking of late has been beyond superb.  The pass he made to Collins was like he had eyes in the back of his head..