It's Feb. 7 on the calendar, but Dale Hunter's theme of the past week, all about warm weather and important hockey, continued Tuesday.
"Well, it’s a playoff game, and I think both teams are treating it that way," the Washington Capitals' coach said before a showdown with the Florida Panthers for first place in the Southeast Division.
Whether that, Brooks Laich's presence or something else motivated the Caps, they played as if this was the biggest game of the season, blasting the Panthers 4-0 Tuesday at Verizon Center to move back atop the Southeast and back into the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
"It's always better winning," Hunter said afterward. "We know what's on the line tonight. It's four-point games and they're playoff games and we're battling with Florida. That's our team we're battling head to head, with other teams right around us. Every two points mean a lot."
It had been a while since the Caps put together a complete, 60-minute effort and the kind of all-around performance they or any team would need to win an actual playoff game. But this was it, with Mathieu Perreault scoring just 13 seconds in and the Caps kept up the pressure for the duration.
Whenever the Panthers made a blunder, which was often, Washington pounced. Whether it was Perreault taking advantage of goaltender Scott Clemmensen's turnover and a breakdown in front or Alex Ovechkin flashing some MVP form, this was as close to a statement game as a team could make with just over a third of the season remaining.
"Big game for us. Obviously they were ahead of us, plus they get a game in hand. Very desperate situation, but we came out great, score a goal 13 seconds in and that was big – especially at home, get the fans going," said goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who shut out his former team for the second time in two tries this season.
It was complete domination in the fashion the Caps were very unable to find during a two-game Southeast swing at Tampa Bay and Florida last week. Karl Alzner pointed out that sometimes it's hard to get up for games at the Panthers, with the crowd not quite as enthusiastic as that of Verizon Center.
That wasn't an issue this time. Even though it was far from a full house, the Caps fed off the quick start and perhaps the mere presence of Laich in the lineup despite a left knee injury that put him on crutches Sunday.
"You see a guy sucking it up and doing what he can for the team," Hunter said. "I played him, but I didn't play him a lot like his usual minutes, but he gave us everything we can."
Laich did not figure into the offense in the blowout of the Panthers, but he did kill penalties as part of his limited playing time. And Ovechkin made the most out of his substantial ice time, scoring twice for just the fifth time this season and first time since New Year's Eve.
Vokoun turned in yet another brilliant performance against the team he played for the past four seasons. He shut the Panthers out for the second time in this building this season, making 42 saves. Hunter called Vokoun undoubtedly the "first star" of the win.
"With him, I think it's positioning. When it's on, it's on. His rebound control was very good tonight," forward Matt Hendricks said. "He was always square to the puck, square to the shooter. We love it, and we love it when he's feeling it. He's been doing it a lot for us lately."
Most of Florida's efforts toward the net were not of what Vokoun calls the "Grade-A" variety, the 35-year-old goalie had a handful of very quality stops and plenty of routine ones to go with it.
He left no doubt in anyone's mind that the Caps were going to cruise in this game and into first place.
"I think everybody was responsibility today was pretty good," Ovechkin said. "We have petty good start, and after that Tomas play unbelievable today. He gave us a chance to win the game."
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