- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2009

SUNRISE, Fla. | For the past few weeks the Florida Panthers have been playing well and trying to inch closer to the Washington Capitals in the Southeast Division race. But in a matter of minutes, Alex Ovechkin proved that may be futile.

Ovechkin had a hat trick, including the winner with 2:31 left in the final period, to lead the Caps to a 4-2 victory Sunday night against the Panthers at BankAtlantic Center and push their lead in the division to 13 points.

“It was very important game for us,” said Ovechkin, who leads the league with nine game-winning goals. “We didn’t want to give them any chances to think they can catch us.”

Nicklas Backstrom hit Ovechkin with a long stretch pass, and the NHL’s leading goal scorer put a shot through Jay Bouwmeester’s legs to give the Caps the lead in the third. Despite a broken stick, he added an empty-netter that banked in off the right post in the closing seconds to seal the victory.

During pregame warmups, Ovechkin told Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun he would score two goals against him, which proved to be quite prophetic.

“I’m sure he tells every goalie that, and when it comes true he tells [the [JUMP]media],” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said with a laugh. “It wouldn’t surprise me.”

Ovechkin had the lone goal in the first period. With Florida’s Cory Stillman in the penalty box for goaltender interference, Ovechkin took a pass from Alexander Semin at the top of the offensive zone and snapped a shot through a crowd at 15:38. Vokoun never saw it thanks to Brooks Laich’s screen at the edge of the crease.

Last season’s MVP had one goal in four games before this weekend swing through the Sunshine State, but he also potted one Saturday at Tampa Bay and now has a league-best 41. He is averaging .764 goals in the 55 games he has appeared. If he continues at that pace the rest of the season, he would finish with 60.

The Panthers are 7-2-1 since the last week of January, but both losses in regulation have been to the Caps. Five of those games were against teams outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference, while this contest was the first of eight straight against teams in playoff position.

Eric Fehr made it a two-goal advantage 30 seconds into the second period. Sergei Fedorov went to the net along the goal line to the right of Vokoun and sent a diagonal pass in front to Fehr. A Panthers player got a stick on the puck, and even though it changed directions, Fehr was able to backhand a one-timer inside the far post.

“It is a good feeling,” Fehr said. “I was just trying a lane for [Fedorov] to throw the puck across. … I was turning away from the net, and I couldn’t see the puck go in. I saw the other guys put their arms up - I was hoping I wasn’t the only one.”

It was Fehr’s ninth marker of the season, continuing a torrid streak for the 23-year-old power forward. He now has six goals in the past seven games - including four games in a row. Since captain Chris Clark went out of the lineup with a wrist injury and opened a regular lineup spot for Fehr, the former first-round pick has nine points in eight contests after having nine in the team’s first 49 games.

Florida rookie Michael Frolik cut the Caps’ lead in half at 12:08 of the middle period. After Stillman slammed Milan Jurcina into the boards behind the net, the puck ended up in the left corner, where Stephen Weiss was waiting to whip a pass into the slot for Frolik.

Nathan Horton leveled the score 1:29 into the third period. Fedorov was sent to the box for putting the puck over the glass in his own end, and the Caps couldn’t kill off Florida’s sixth power-play chance of the game.

Caps goalie Jose Theodore stopped the point shot and had the first rebound covered, but defenseman Tom Poti had fallen on him, and the goaltender was powerless as Horton jammed the puck in at the left goal post for his 16th of the season.

Still, it was a strong effort from Theodore (29 saves) and the penalty killers, who did erase eight of nine chances and are 20-for-21 in the past four games.

“I said earlier in the game, ‘The PK is going to win us the game tonight,’ ” said Caps defenseman Mike Green, who had his eight-game goal streak snapped.

Notes - Defensemen Karl Alzner and Milan Jurcina and forward Jay Beagle returned to the lineup after being healthy scratches Saturday against Tampa Bay. They replaced Michael Nylander, John Erskine and Staffan Kronwall. …

Viktor Kozlov missed his fifth straight game with a groin injury.

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