LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals had hoped to get off fast and set a tone as the second half of the NHL season began. Last night's game with the Florida Panthers might have set a tone, but the 5-4 loss was not what the Capitals had in mind.
The Caps overcame four Florida power-play goals to tie the game with 7:31 to go, but could not stop Florida left wing John Garpenlov, who scored at even strength with 55.4 seconds to play.
Washington should have double-teamed the guy, no doubt about that. It was Garpenlov's hat trick that did in the Caps and each of his goals came with less than a minute to play in each of the three periods.
He scored Florida's first goal with 21.5 seconds to go in the first. The second came with 47.8 seconds left in the middle period to break a 2-2 tie. And the last one came with the clock nearly showing a trip to overtime.
The Caps used goals by Dale Hunter, who had not scored since Nov. 30, and Peter Bondra, who netted his team-leading 27th, to tie it in the third.
It was the second time this season that the Capitals had rallied against the Panthers, but the last time, they made it pay off with a 5-4 victory in Miami on Dec. 28.
The Panthers also got power-play goals from Scott Mellanby and Gord Murphy as they went 4-for-8 with the man advantage. Washington was 2-for-8.
Panthers goalie Mark Fitzpatrick made 31 saves, and Washington's Jim Carey had 22.
If the first period taught the Capitals anything, it was if you don't take advantage of your opportunities, somebody else will.
It has been this way a lot this season. The Capitals dominate play. The other team takes the lead.
Washington had had three power-play opportunities and outshot Florida 13-5 over the first 18 minutes. But then came back-to-back penalties on Craig Berube and Joe Reekie to give the Panthers a 5-on-3 advantage over the final 31.7 seconds.
Just 10.2 seconds later Garpenlov was waiting at the far post when Gord Murphy sent a hard pass cross ice.
Carey was out in front of the crease and could not get back.
The power play continued in the 5-on-4 version at the start of the second period, and 1:03 later, Florida's Mellanby cashed in for the second time.
Washington squandered another power-play opportunity two minutes later, but when Mellanby gave the Caps yet another opportunity, the action started to pop.
Hunter won a faceoff and Pat Peake took possession of the loose puck, getting it to Sylvain Cote at the left point. Cote passed to Calle Johansson on the far side, and the defenseman let one rip so hard that it froze Fitzpatrick and Washington was on the scoreboard.
But if Fitzpatrick was surprised, it was nothing compared to the USAir Arena crowd 24 seconds later, when Peake made another great play.
As Steve Konowalchuk tied up former Cap Jason Woolley, Peake gathered in the loose puck near the blue line and swiftly circled right before barreling in on Fitzpatrick, slipping the puck past the goalie's right shoulder at the near post.
The Panthers were furious after the goal was counted, arguing at length, possibly for a penalty on Ken Klee, but the goal stood.
Less than a minute later, however, it appeared that they had made an impression on referee Paul Stewart, as he proceeded to call the Capitals for four penalties over the next eight minutes.
The last two, on Konowalchuk and Michal Pivonka, combined to put the Panthers on a five-on-three power play for 1:25.
Garpenlov would beat Carey for a 3-2 Panthers lead.