But then Kevin Kaminski dropped his gloves for a classic scrap with Florida's Paul Laus and the inspired Capitals scored three straight goals to deck the Panthers, 5-4, before a sellout crowd of 14,703 at Miami Arena.
"You don't know. It's an intangible," Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld said when asked if the goals by Ken Klee, Sergei Gonchar and Pat Peake had come as a result of the fight. "But we got two goals while they were serving that five-minute penalty. It was a tremendous fight, if you're a fight fan. It amazed me that either of them could get up, let alone skate to the penalty box.
"But just maybe it was a guy putting it on the line again, showing his heart."
Peake's game-winner with 3:34 to play was his eighth goal of the season, but his first at even strength.
It gave the Caps back-to-back wins against two of the hottest teams in the NHL, coming as it does on the heels of a 4-0 shutout of the Montreal Canadiens.
Washington goalie Jim Carey made 21 saves in preserving the victory, which Schoenfeld called the biggest of the season.
"Florida [25-9-2] is obviously the hardest team in the league to come back on," he said. "It took the maximum effort from everyone. To be able to come from behind halfway through the third against them and win, it has to be our biggest win of the season."
With Kaminski in the penalty box, Klee started the rally, scoring with 9:23 left to make it 4-3.
"We got a lot of guys scoring now," Klee said. "We tried to sit back and ride [Peter Bondra's] shoulders and that didn't work. Now we're all working hard, scoring, winning. To beat Florida here like this was sweet revenge."
Klee was referring to the fact that when the Capitals lost to Florida for the first of two times this season, they had allowed just 11 shots on goal but fell by a 3-1 score.
"Tonight we needed a lift and Kevin Kaminski gave it to us," Klee said. "Give the credit to him. It was a great fight and it lifted us. What were we supposed to do with him not there doing that?"
This was Washington's first come-from-behind victory in the third period this season.
"You should never lose when you're up by two goals in the third," Carey said. "Kenny's third goal shifted the momentum. It was a nice game, wasn't it?"
It didn't start out that way. Former Capital Jason Woolley made his old team momentarily miserable 4:16 into the game when he lofted the puck high over Carey's right shoulder for a 1-0 lead.
Early this week, the Capitals had held a team meeting to discuss their goals for the coming game. Chief among them was scoring first. Obviously, that didn't happen last night.
But a little more than eight minutes later, Michal Pivonka tied the game, 1-1, when he put away a pass from line mate Bondra. It was Pivonka's third goal of the season and a timely one. The Panthers, after all, are 15-0-1 when leading after the first period.
The second period started Washington's way. Bondra, who leads the Caps in goals, gave another demonstration of his ability with his 20th goal of the season. The Caps were working their second power play of the night when Bondra carried the puck toward the net, looked to pass to Keith Jones and then surprised goalie Mark Fitzpatrick by shooting back across his body for a 2-1 lead with 2:49 gone.
Washington had a bundle of opportunities to stretch the lead by two or three, but Fitzpatrick, who had beaten the Capitals twice this season, refused to yield.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, Carey also was at the top of his game. Coming off his second shutout of the season, he showed just how good he could be here, too. When Radek Dvorak came in by himself at 15:04, Carey made the big pad save and smothered the puck.
But with 6:05 left, Florida left wing Bill Lindsay went nearly the length of the ice to tie the score.
With 20 seconds left in the period, center Jesse Belanger scored his 12th goal, this one on the power play, to give Florida a 3-2 lead entering the final 20 minutes.
When Belanger scored again 6:37 into the final period, it looked as if Florida was about to improve on its 52 points and keep pace with the league-leading New York Rangers. But Washington rallied.
"We gave up too many chances, especially in the third," Florida coach Doug MacLean said. "We just didn't play well all night."
The victory was the Caps' sixth in their past nine games.