MIAMI -- A rivalry? Can there be a rivalry between two teams that have never met?
If fourth place in the Atlantic Division is on the line, if one is a respectable expansion team and the other a struggling veteran team, why not a rivalry?
When it was over, and the 3-3 third-period tie was broken, it was Florida with the 4-3 victory.
"They were getting desperate for a goal there at the end," said Florida coach Roger Neilson. "We were hoping they'd get caught up in it like that and give us a break."
The Capitals gave the Panthers a big break in the final minutes.
Time had just run out on a Washington power play. Capitals goalie Don Beaupre had rapped his stick on the ice to warn his team that the Panthers' Brent Severyn was about to emerge from the penalty box.
All five of Washington's other men on the ice -- Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate, Mike Ridley, Dimitri Khristich and Randy Burridge -- were pressing on the Florida net.
No one was back to play defense, so when the puck bounced out, the only ones there to pick it up were Panthers Brian Skrudland and Severyn.
Severyn rushed in on Beaupre at 2:42 for his third goal of the season and the victory.
"The selfishness we showed . . . " said Capitals coach Terry Murray.
"With two minutes left, to lose on a turnover, on a two-on-none breakaway. We had players yelling, the goalie banging his stick and still both our defensemen are going forward.
"I don't know what to say. I've never seen anything like it."
It was a bitter loss for the Capitals (9-11), who fell to fifth place in the division after their fourth straight loss.
The upstart Panthers are 8-10-3.
The Capitals were to fly home today and try to regroup before meeting the St. Louis Blues at USAir Arena on Wednesday.
While the Capitals deserve to feel deflated after the loss, it was a game of promise for Florida.
Neilson had reminded his players before last night's game that it was 19 games into last season that the then-expansion Tampa Bay Lightning, which had started strong, began to fade.
"He brought it to our attention," said Skrudland, who had given Florida a 3- 2 lead with 4:46 gone in the second period. "But we're not Tampa Bay. We're not Ottawa. We're the Florida Panthers. We're out to set a trail for ourselves."
And so, the Panthers stopped their losing streak at three and became the first team in 15 games to score more than three goals on the Capitals.
The night didn't begin well for Beaupre, who was starting for the first time since Nov. 9.
The Capitals were in control most of the first period, but it was Florida that scored first.
The Capitals had just made a line change when the Panthers Andrei Lomakin passed the puck behind Ridley, and Gord Murphy unloaded a shot that bounced off the far post and into the net for a power-play goal and a 1-0 lead with 5:19 gone.
Washington bounced back with a power-play goal of its own by " Burridge with 9:31 gone. And then Peter Bondra scored the first of his two goals with 2:04 left in the period for a 2-1 advantage.
The lead disappeared, however, in the second period. With just 12 seconds left on a four-minute Washington penalty, Dave Lowry found left wing Evgeny Davydov open in front of the crease for a 2-2 tie with 4:04 gone in the period.
Just 42 seconds later, Florida got off another shot on a two-on-one fast break for a 3-2 lead.
Washington tied it on Bondra's second goal -- this one a deflection off a slap shot by Sylvain Cote with 12:54 gone.
And then there was nothing, until Severyn and Skrudland came barreling down the ice toward Beaupre.
"I'm watching them coming at me and I want to make the big play, to give us a chance to win -- and it just didn't happen," he said.
Said Severyn, "I could have been the goat. All I was thinking was don't miss the net, don't miss the net."
NOTES: The Capitals should have had some inspiration in the "Someone here doesn't like us" department. The Miami Herald ran a box yesterday identifying the Capitals to Miami hockey fans this way: "The Capitals are mostly associated with negatives: worst record in NHL history their first season (8-67-5, numerous playoff collapses and, last season, Dale Hunter's vicious hit on the Islanders' Pierre Turgeon in the playoffs as Turgeon was celebrating a goal." . . .
Hunter is counting the games to his return, "Two to go," he said, after sweating through yesterday's optional practice. . . .
D Enrico Ciccone was scratched from last night's game. . . . When the Panthers scored on the power play in the first period, it marked the 15th time in their 21 games that they scored first. . . . Capitals G Olie Kolzig has been assigned to Portland.