Veteran defenseman Marc Staal ended a 75-game goal drought, captain Aleksander Barkov also scored and the Florida Panthers held on to beat the Washington Capitals 6-3 Thursday night in a big game in the Eastern Conference wild-card race.
Florida pulled even with Washington at 62 points, closing an 11-point gap between the teams since New Year’s Day. The Capitals are only ahead in the standings because they’ve played one fewer game.
If recent trends continue, the Panthers will pass them quickly, having won five of seven to claw into the playoff chase. Despite cutting their deficit to one goal with under three minutes left in regulation, Capitals fell to 0-3-0 on their three-game homestand.
Washington played without captain and leading goal-scorer Alex Ovechkin, who is away after the death of his father, Mikhail, who received a pregame moment of silence.
With Ovechkin expected to be out at least one more game and likely longer after going home to Russia, the Capitals need to figure out a way to right the ship before their chances of extending the organization’s postseason streak to nine seasons get slimmer.
One reason they’re in a precarious spot is the rise of the Panthers, who again got a solid performance from goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in making 28 saves.
Along with Staal scoring for the first time since March 15, 2022, when he was with Detroit, fellow defenseman Gustav Forsling and fourth-line center Colin White beat Darcy Kuemper, who allowed four goals on 34 shots. Anton Lundell and Sam Reinhart each added an empty-netter in the final couple of minutes to seal it.
Dylan Strome scored in the second period to get Washington on the board, and Nicklas Backstrom got one on the power play in the third. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored with 2:32 remaining in regulation with Kuemper pulled for an extra attacker, the Capitals‘ comeback bid fell short.
NOTES: Panthers center Sam Bennett was out after getting injured Tuesday at St. Louis. Coach Paul Maurice said he wasn’t concerned about Bennett’s absence being a long one. … Washington center Lars Eller played his 925th regular-season NHL game, tying Frans Nielsen for the most by a player from Denmark. … The Capitals announced winger Carl Hagelin underwent left hip resurfacing surgery earlier this week in New York. It’s the same operation fellow Swede Nicklas Backstrom had in Belgium in June that kept him out until January. Hagelin, who has not played since taking a stick to his left eye last March, is considered out indefinitely and will begin his recovery and rehab immediately.
Panthers: Visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday afternoon.
Capitals: Face the Carolina Hurricanes outdoors Saturday night in the NHL’s annual Stadium Series game at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh.
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