WASHINGTON -- It took an act of attrition and a lot longer than any of their fans had hoped, but the Ottawa Senators have finally clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar blasted a slapshot high over goaltender Michal Neuvirth's right shoulder 47 seconds into overtime Thursday night, giving the Senators a 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center.
The win lifted the Senators (24-16-6) into the playoffs for the second straight spring and for the third time in four years.
"It's a tremendous credit to our players and their perseverance through quite a bit of adversity this season," Senators coach Paul MacLean said. "For us to make the playoffs under the circumstances that we were put under early in the season I think is a great accomplishment. The players deserve all of the credit."
The Senators lost their top offensive player, Jason Spezza, to back surgery five games into the season and lost their top defenseman, Erik Karlsson, to a lacerated Achilles' tendon 14 games into the season. They also were forced to play 18 games without No. 1 goaltender Craig Anderson, who was sidelined by an ankle sprain.
Still, the Senators managed to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference standings and clinched a berth on the same night Karlsson returned to the lineup.
"We came here with the goal to get two points and I think we had an OK game," said Karlsson, who picked up two assists in his return. "We got the two points and we should be happy with that."
The win vaulted the Senators into a virtual tie with the Rangers and Islanders, who also have 54 points. But because the Senators have two games remaining and the Rangers and Isles each have one, the Senators moved into the sixth spot in the standings.
If they remain there, the Senators would face the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, beginning next week in Washington.
The Capitals clinched a playoff spot for the sixth straight season on Tuesday night. They are 0-2-1 against the Senators this season and have scored just four goals in those three losses.
"They are a good team and it would be a great matchup," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. "But we will figure out a way. At the end of the day, if you outwork your opponent you'll win."
For much of the game it looked as though Craig Anderson might be on his way to his fourth shutout of the season.
But with 8:31 gone in the third period, Alex Ovechkin tied the score with his league-leading 32nd goal of the season and first against the Senators.
Ovechkin entered the zone with a head of steam, caught a pass from Marcus Johansson in full stride, blew past Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips and tucked a backhander past Anderson for his 23rd goal in 22 games.
The Senators received a boost of confidence with the return of Karlsson, who missed the previous 31 games with his injury.
It didn't take long for the 22-year-old defenseman to make an impact for the Senators. After logging 6:43 of ice time in the first period alongside defense partner Marc Methot, Karlsson helped give the Sens a 1-0 lead 12:35 into the second period.
Karlsson took a pass from Milan Michalek and let go a wrister that Jakob Silfverberg redirected past Washington goaltender Michal Neuvirth for a 1-0 lead on the Senators' 14th shot of the game.
Capitals coach Adam Oates said that despite his team's record against the Senators this season, he's not shying away from a possible playoff series against them.
"They're a good a hockey team," Oates said. "If we end up playing them we'll be ready for them."
NOTES: With the division clinched, Capitals coach Adam Oates gave starting goaltender Braden Holtby the night off after he started six straight games and appeared in 17 of 19. ... Washington right winger Joel Ward sat out his eighth straight game with a bruised left knee but skated with the team on Thursday morning and could return to the lineup on Saturday when the Capitals close out the regular season against the Bruins. ... Ovechkin played in his 600th career NHL game. No current NHL player with 600 or fewer games has amassed more points (732) or goals (370) than Ovechkin. He tied Robert Gould for 15th place in games played in Capitals history.