MIAMI -- Washington Capitals defender Kevin Hatcher best summarized what each of his teammates painfully have discovered:
The Florida Panthers are for real.
If a Florida win and a tie earlier this season weren't proof enough, then Washington's 5-1 loss last night at Miami Arena eliminated any doubt. An expansion team -- one that didn't even have players seven months ago -- moved past the Capitals for eighth place in the Eastern Division at the All-Star break.
"Everyone thinks they're for real," said Hatcher, whose team now trails Florida by two points (46-44). "They have no true good scorer, but they play together as a unit on the ice. Everybody knows what the other is doing."
For Florida last night, that was scoring. The Panthers jumped to a 3-0 lead and clinched the victory when Bob Kudelski and Jesse Belanger scored their second goals of the game during the third period.
The victory gives Florida a 19-17-8 record, the first time the Panthers have stood two games above .500. And just as important to Florida's players, the Panthers would edge Washington (20-22-4) for the Eastern Division's final playoff spot if postseason play were held today.
"I don't think anyone underestimated the importance of this game," said Panthers goalkeeper John Vanbiesbrouck, whose 30 saves gave him 99 against Washington this season. "We were tied with Washington before the game, and you have to beat the teams you're tied with to make the big show."
Belanger took center stage against Washington, setting a Florida record for points in a game with four. He scored the Panthers' first goal on a power play with only 3.5 seconds remaining in the first period.
Belanger, taken by Florida in the expansion draft from Montreal, received a pass behind the net from rookie Rob Niedermayer. As Florida defender Brent Severyn shielded two Washington players front of the goal, Belanger tipped in the shot to the right of goalkeeper Don Beaupre.
Or so it was ruled. Washington argued the goal with a legitimate gripe: The goal light did not flash until several seconds had elapsed. Also, goal judge Bill Ferris was out of position and didn't signal the score immediately. However, a check of instant replay confirmed the goal was scored.
There was nothing controversial about Florida's two second-period goals. With Calle Johansson in the penalty box for roughing, the Panthers took advantage of sloppy defense.
Belanger found Kudelski for a two-line pass between two Washington defenders. Kudelski, acquired by Florida in a recent trade with Ottawa, then whizzed a shot from the top of the circle past a startled Beaupre with 2:32 expired in the period.
Florida scored again almost one minute later, just 22 seconds into a power play generated when Dimitri Khristich was slapped with a five-minute game misconduct penalty. Panthers center Stu Barnes began driving behind the net, then passed to a wide-open Scott Mellanby for an easy goal from just outside the crease.
"We knew what they did on the power play," Hatcher said. "They would get the puck back to the point and shoot. It was nothing too fancy, but they do it well."
Washington, which finished with 82 minutes in penalties, finally cut the score to 3-1 almost midway through the period. Al Iafrate fired a shot from the blue line that was tipped into the net by Randy Burridge.
But Washington was unable to capitalize on 30 other shots on goal.
"We didn't play very disciplined," Hatcher said. "We would put things together real well for 10 minutes and then we would have a little lapse."