WASHINGTON - With the game tied almost midway through the third period, you could feel the Washington Capitals' intensity pick up. They were on their fifth power play and playing without NHL power-play scoring leader Peter Bondra. And they were desperate.
The game was tied, which might not seem so bad, but the Capitals need every point. They're fighting for a playoff spot, trying to come from eight points back to win the Southeast Division or gain at least five points to grab the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
And so the Capitals were looking for a result, a result they got when Ken Klee followed a shot by Glen Metropolit into the crease.
"I hit it once and I thought maybe it was in and came out," Klee said. "But I didn't hear anything called and I saw the puck sitting there. It was all but an eighth of an inch over the line, just a smidgen of it on the line. I thought I better touch it over and make sure."
That final touch, with 10:36 left, gave the Caps a 4-3 victory over the Florida Panthers. The win, combined with Carolina's 4-1 loss to Toronto last night, narrows the gap in the Southeast to six points.
This is the Capitals' way. A dangerous way, no doubt. Fall behind in the first half of the season and then rally madly over the second half to win a playoff berth.
With the Winter Olympics now history, the Capitals resumed their February push toward the postseason.
Last night, the Caps started strong, building 2-0 and 3-1 leads, only to see Florida inch its way back to a 3-3 tie and set the stage for Klee's heroics at MCI Center.
The Caps are on a 4-0-1 roll, their longest unbeaten streak this season. Over the past three years, Washington has produced a gaudy 41-16-6-4 record from February to the end of the season, and if it hopes to make its way into this postseason, it will have to produce equally strong numbers.
Washington plays five of its next seven games at home before taking off on a grueling eight-game road trip March 15 that could determine its fate.
"We didn't play particularly well in our own end," said Caps goalie Olie Kolzig, who was returning from a knee injury and admitted to being rusty in the first period. "But the bottom line is we didn't fold and we didn't let them get the lead. A win is a win is a win."
The Caps got first-period goals from Adam Oates and Matt Pettinger to take a 2-0 lead before Florida began climbing back in the game on a short-handed goal by Pavel Bure with 1:01 to go in the period.
"If we hadn't allowed that short-handed goal, this game might have been a little more one-sided," said Caps coach Ron Wilson. "Considering the [Olympic] layoff, I thought we had a lot of great moments."
The Capitals, for the most part, played the kind of defense Washington fans have come to expect, giving the Panthers little room and little time to attack the goal for much of the game. That effort was helped by the return of left wing Steve Konowalchuk, who was playing his first game since undergoing shoulder surgery Oct. 18.
Konowalchuk was reunited with Ulf Dahlen, giving Washington a strong checking line, as Colin Forbes and Andrei Nikolishin took turns as the third man.
"It was nice to be back and playing with Dahlen," Konowalchuk said. "I've played with him for two years and we know how to control the puck. Tonight, we did that in the third period and it drew a penalty."
And that penalty produced the power play Klee scored on.
Florida 1 1 1 - 3
Washington 2 1 1 - 4
First period - 1, Washington, Oates 11 (Gonchar, Jagr), 6:38. 2, Washington, Pettinger 7 (Sacco), 7:55. 3, Florida, P.Bure 20 (Nilson, Svehla), 18:59 (sh). Penalty-Wiemer, Fla (boarding), 17:53. Second period - 4, Washington, Jagr 19 (Simon, Khristich), 4:08. 5, Florida, P.Bure 21 (Ozolinsh, Svehla), 6:27. Penalties - Jagr, Was (holding), 8:27; Van Impe, Fla (tripping), 11:52; Svehla, Fla (hooking), 14:11; P.Bure, Fla (hooking), 19:41. Third period - 6, Florida, Ozolinsh 8 (Svehla, Jokinen), 3:18 (pp). 7, Washington, Klee 5 (Metropolit, Oates), 9:24 (pp). Penalties - Konowalchuk, Was (holding), 1:46; Fortin, Was (roughing), 2:44; Jokinen, Fla (holding), 7:55. Shots on goal - Florida 10-12-8-30. Washington 7-9-6-22. Power-play opportunities - Florida 1 of 3; Washington 1 of 5. Goalies - Florida, Luongo 14-29-2 (22 shots-18 saves). Washington, Kolzig 20-23-6 (30-27). A - 15,803 (18,672).