WASHINGTON (AP)Marc Staal wasn’t too worried about not scoring a goal all season and having a goal drought extend almost a full calendar year.
That didn’t make his smile any smaller when he ended it and was mobbed by Florida teammates.
”They were all pumped up and it’s a big goal in a big game, so it was a lot of fun,” Staal said.
The Panthers have plenty to celebrate lately, especially after Staal’s goal and 28 saves from Sergei Bobrovsky helped them beat the Washington Capitals 6-3 Thursday night in a crucial matchup in the Eastern Conference wild-card race.
”Everyone played awesome,” said Colin White, who scored after replacing injured center Sam Bennett in the lineup. ”We knew how big of a game this is. It felt like a playoff game out there. I thought we brought our best effort, and everybody worked so hard.”
Florida pulled even with Washington at 62 points, closing an 11-point gap between the teams since New Year’s Day. The Capitals are only ahead in the standings because they’ve played one fewer game.
If recent trends continue, the Panthers will pass them quickly, having won five of seven to claw into the playoff chase. Despite cutting their deficit to one goal with under three minutes left in regulation, Capitals fell to 0-3-0 on their three-game homestand.
”Our execution isn’t where it needs to be – I mean all over the ice,” said Nicklas Backstrom, who scored for Washington. ”We need to tighten up our game a little bit and just execute better because right now we’re just doing too many mistakes.”
Washington played without captain and leading goal-scorer Alex Ovechkin, who is away after the death of his father, Mikhail, who received a pregame moment of silence.
With Ovechkin expected to be out at least one more game and likely longer after going home to Russia, the Capitals need to figure out a way to right the ship before their chances of extending the organization’s postseason streak to nine seasons get slimmer.
One reason they’re in a precarious spot is the rise of the Panthers, who have been making up ground despite a difficult schedule in 2023.
”It’s going to be a constant grinder right straight through,” coach Paul Maurice said. ”But a win like tonight, on the road, with the schedule we’ve had, they start to believe.”
Along with Staal scoring for the first time since March 15, 2022, when he was with Detroit, and White getting on the board, defenseman Gustav Forsling and captain Alexander Barkov beat Darcy Kuemper, who allowed four goals on 34 shots. Anton Lundell and Sam Reinhart each added an empty-netter in the final couple of minutes to seal it.
Dylan Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov also scored for the Capitals, who cut their deficit to one with 2:32 but couldn’t complete the comeback after losing Marcus Johansson to injury.
NOTES: Maurice said he wasn’t concerned about Bennett’s absence being a long one. … Washington center Lars Eller played his 925th regular-season NHL game, tying Frans Nielsen for the most by a player from Denmark. … The Capitals announced winger Carl Hagelin underwent left hip resurfacing surgery earlier this week in New York. Hagelin, who has not played since taking a stick to his left eye last March, is considered out indefinitely and will begin his recovery and rehab immediately.
Panthers: Visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday afternoon.
Capitals: Face the Carolina Hurricanes outdoors Saturday night in the NHL’s annual Stadium Series game at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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