The Washington Times - November 7, 2009, 11:02PM

Late last month the Atlanta Thrashers were 4-1-1 and riding high as an early-season surprise. Two games against the Wshington Capitals in eight days — both losses — and the Thrashers were an early-season surprise no more.

The Florida Panthers had rebounded from an awful start with three straight wins and plenty of momentum heading into a weekend home-and-home with the Washington Capitals. The Panthers could have cut Washington’s lead over them to five points, and the Caps were shorthanded no less.

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Well, this weekend didn’t work out so well for the Florida Panthers. Two decisive victories later (despite missing Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz) and the Panthers are back in a funk.

Let’s just say the Caps have taken a bit of delight in reminding their Southeast brethern who is still the alpha dog in this division.

“We had a chance to really take control, we felt, of our division,” Laich said. “If they win this hockey game,now it’s a split and we look at it as a missed opportunity. It was said in the second intermission we have a day off tomorrow, nothing going on, so lay it on the line and play hard. We came out and we out-hustled them and out-worked them.”

Indeed they did. The Caps scored five goals in the third period — most since a six-pack in the first period March 3, 2008 — to blow open what once was a back-and-forth contest.

Two things happend during the intermission. 1) Bruce Boudreau said he reminded the team of the “benefits of winning” — he was a little vague on what that meant, but it wasn’t a reward vs. punishment deal. He wanted them to know how important it was to bury the Panthers, essentially.

2) Boudreau tweaked the top lines, switching Mike Knuble to the top line and putting Alexander Semin on the second. And did that ever work. Knuble combined with Tomas Fleischmann and Nicklas Backstrom to score three goals less than 6 1/2 minutes and a 4-4 contest was a rout in a hurry.

“We got different guys that can play together, ” Knuble said. “You just try to fit in where you can and play. Tomas, I’m really impressed with his hands around the net and his ability to finish. When he gets a quality chance it is going in. Obviously Nick is the passer that he is. They are fun guys to play with.”

The end result was a wild 7-4 victory and plenty of praise to go around. Like, for instance …

* Knuble had a four-point night, inlcuding his first two-goal game of the year.

* Fleischmann continued his strong start to the year with two goals. He’s now got five goals and two assists in six games since coming back from a blood clot.

* Through the first eight periods of “Life Without Ovechkin,” Nicklas Backstrom was somewhere between not bad and OK. He was all over the place in the third period, and helped set up two of the three goals. He’s got 17 assists in 17 games.

* Mathieu Perreault had what Brooks Laich called a “game-changing goal” to start the five-spot in the third. His line didn’t play a ton in the second, but he scored 2:21 in on a nifty steal-and-stuff from behind the Panthers net. Boudreau praised his speed and tenacity. Perreault’s got three points in three games, and certainly looks like he could make it in the NHL.

* Laich had a goal and an assist in the first two periods. He’s got 18 points in 17 games.

On the downside … 

* Jose Theodore allowed four goals on 28 shots, including a couple he’d probably like to have back.

* While Backstrom came to life in the third period, Alexander Semin is still MIA. There were 13 Caps who registered points tonight, including 10 forwards. Semin and David Steckel were the two who went pointless. It wasn’t just that he didn’t have any points — for the second straight night Semin played a little more than 19 minutes and didn’t exactly stand out.

Boudreau suggested that Semin might miss Ovechkin more than we think because he doesn’t have anyone to talk to on the bench.

So the Caps have tomorrow off and don’t play again until Wednesday. With the win, the Caps are tied with the Penguins for the top spot in the Eastern Conference with 24 points (at least for the next two hours — Pittsburgh is in San Jose for a 10:30 p.m. start).

The Caps have now proven they can score without No. 8 (12 goals in three games) and have done it without any goals from Semin, Backstrom or Green (though Backstrom has set up a few).

The Caps have also proven it could be a long season for the other Southeast Division teams when they see “Washington” on the schedule.