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Florida Panthers 'Return Favor,' Hold On to Beat Capitals 5-4 ... Jet-Lagged Cats Give up Two in Third, Win Anyway ... Lead in SE is Biggest in NHL

JordanflightThe Panthers players may have downplayed the importance of Monday night's game against the visiting Capitals but coach Kevin Dineen wasn't buying it.

Nor should he have.

Florida continued to keep control in the Southeast Division as it took a four-goal lead and had to hold on as jet lag set in to beat Washington 5-4. The Panthers Snakesplaneextended its lead in the division to seven points over the Capitals – most of any divisional leader in the NHL.

Only it didn't come easy. Against the Capitals, it rarely does. Florida had lost 11 of the past 13 meetings to the four-time defending divisional champs. On Monday, the Panthers looked crisp early and held a 5-1 lead until Cody Eakin scored with 20
seconds left in the second period. Two late goals by the Capitals made things a little too close for comfort.

“It was a nice win,'' said Stephen Weiss, who had two goals and an assist. “That's a team that's had our number the past few seasons. It was nice to return the favor. It's nice to have a cushion, but we're not standing around watching yet. We're trying to stay in the groove and keep playing the way we have. We'll look at the standings when the season is over.''

The Panthers left San Jose early Sunday morning and flew five hours after beating the Sharks 5-3 on Saturday night. Some players still had their watches set on California time.

“I don't think it was much [jet lag] as it was us not Majorleagueplanebeing comfortable, going after them,'' Weiss said. “We sat back. We needed to keep our legs moving, put pressure on them like we did in the first two periods.''

The Panthers took a 2-0 lead after getting goals from Weiss and Mike Santorelli within a 13 second span early in the opening period. Dmitry Kulikov made it 3-0, beating backup goalie Michal Neuvirth at 16:31 of the period. Neuvirth made 25 saves in place of former Panthers backstop Tomas Vokoun. 

Florida was also without its starter as Jose Theodore was sick. Rookie Jacob Markstrom was called up to backup Scott Clemmensen, who is now 3-0. The Panthers have scored at least five goals in each of his three starts.  

The Panthers went into the first break up 3-1 before getting goals from Sean Bergenheim (a wraparound into an empty net) and Weiss (a sand wedge from a Tomas Fleischmann pass) to take what looked like an insurmountable lead. But the struggling Capitals kept coming.

Airplane“This is a big win for us coming off the long travel,'' Kris Versteeg said. “We ran out of gas at the end but we found a way. It was a three hour difference and five-plus hour flight. That's never easy to do. We gut it out and found a way to win.''


The NHL's Board of Governors approved realignment for next season, with the Panthers moving from the Southeast Division to a yet-unnamed 'Conference C.' Florida will be with Southeast alum Tampa Bay as well as Buffalo, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Boston. 

By being in a seven team division, the Panthers will play each division foe six times – three home, three Snowbirdaway. The new format brings back complete play as each team will play every team in the league at least twice – one at home, one away.

The top four teams in each division will play each other in the playoffs with the four conference champs being seeded for the Stanley Cup semifinals. The new format goes into place next season.

“I'm glad we keep our rivalry with Tampa Bay,'' assistant GM Mike Santos said before declining Delbocacomment until he studies it more.


Vokoun said he was told after Washington's win against Ottawa on Saturday that he wouldn't start against his former teammates – well, the ones who are left – on Monday. Vokoun beat the Panthers 3-0 at Washington on Oct. 18.

With only a one-year deal with the Capitals, Vokoun's family remains in Broward County while he plays in Washington. So, knowing he wouldn't start Monday wasn't exactly the worst news in the world.

“Coming home, and I consider that house my home, was nice because I've been gone since September,'' Vokoun said. “It's nice to be back. I got here on a Sunday and the kids were home. So I enjoyed that.''

-- Dineen said winger Mikael Samuelsson, who hasn't played since being part of the David Booth trade on Oct. 22 with complications from sports hernia surgery, could be back in the lineup this week.

Marcel Goc (concussion symptoms) and Matt Bradley (upper body) aren't expected back until next week at the earliest.