- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Washington Capitals probably needed to win at least five times during this six-game stretch away from Verizon Center to stay in playoff contention as the final week of the season approaches.

They did just that.

Cristobal Huet stopped 32 shots, and the Caps dispatched the Florida Panthers 3-0 last night at BankAtlantic Center. It was the team’s fourth victory in a row — all on the road — and eighth in nine games.

“We knew we couldn’t afford to lose with Boston winning this afternoon,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I thought our defense and goaltender played extremely well.”

With the win, Washington kept pace with Boston and Philadelphia in the race for the final two postseason berths in the Eastern Conference. Former Caps forward Jeff Halpern aided his former team by scoring the game-winning goal for Tampa Bay against Carolina.

The Caps are two points behind the Hurricanes for the division lead and can beat them Tuesday night to forge a tie. Carolina will own the tiebreaker though, so that won’t be enough.

“We just have to do our job,” Huet said. “We can’t control what [other teams] do. We’ll think about the next game now and that’s all we can look at. That’s working right now and we’re a pretty confident group.”

After a scoreless first period, the Caps generated offense in the second 20 minutes. At the end of a long shift where the trio of Brooks Laich, Viktor Kozlov and Matt Cooke outworked the Panthers in their own zone, it was Kozlov who put Washington on the board first. He settled a bouncing puck between the hash marks and snapped off a shot into the top left-hand corner at 2:48 of the period. It was his 16th goal of the season.

The Caps had to deal some penalty trouble in the middle of the period, but they spent nearly as much time on the attack as the Panthers did.

Mike Green made it 2-0 later in the second. Kozlov tipped the puck to Alex Ovechkin near the right side of the net, and he whipped a cross-crease pass to Green, who had pinched in from the left point and was left all alone for an easy one-timer.

It was Green’s 18th goal of the season, but his first since Feb. 29 — a span of 14 games. The tally moved Green back ahead of Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf for the most goals by a defenseman. Chicago’s Dustin Byfuglien is listed as a defenseman by the NHL and has 18, but he has spent almost this entire season as a forward for the Blackhawks.

“Yeah, thanks for reminding me,” Green said of the drought. “I’ve been shooting the puck a lot, but it just hasn’t been going in. Alex made a great play to set me up with an open net.”

Ovechkin added his 62nd goal of the season 11:32 into the third period to end any doubt. Kozlov forced his way through a defender and across the goal mouth to backhand a shot that Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun stopped, but Ovechkin was there to collect the rebound, spin and rip a shot past him on the short side.

Huet did not have to make many spectacular saves, but he made them all in his sixth straight win. The Caps struggled to generate much on the power play and even yielded a disjointed 2-on-0 early in the second period.

Both Ovechkin and Green left their posts on the point, and the Panthers went the other way short-handed, but the spacing never materialized and Huet turned aside Jozef Stumpel’s wrist shot without much peril.

“He plays so consistent and solid,” Green said of Huet, who had his second shutout with Washington. “You know exactly where he is going to be and where the puck is going after he stops it.”

Now the Caps return to Verizon for the final three games of the season and the mission is simple: Keep winning and waiting for some help.

“I know if we keep winning, something good is going to happen,” Boudreau said. “If we continue to play like we’re playing, somebody is going to falter once and we’ll be there to jump on it.”

Last night at BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla.

QUOTABLE

“It is amazing how I don’t give a rat’s butt about the West. When I was in the minors, I was looking at all the teams, not just Washington but watching all the games. But right now I don’t know what is going on out there.”

— Caps coach Bruce Boudreau

BY THE NUMBERS

20 Road wins for the Caps this season, the most since they had 21 in 1993-94.

11-0-1Washington’s record this season when Matt Bradley has a point.

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