WASHINGTON, DC — The Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers battled, scraped and clawed for 60 minutes in a game with playoff implications. But two and a half hours north of D.C., the Philadelphia Flyers assured them both of a playoff berth.
News of the Flyers' 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres set off euphoria at Verizon Center with 3:04 left in the third period and the Capitals on a late power play. Moments later, Washington completed their 4-2 victory to eliminate the Sabres.
A stinging loss for the Panthers, who have one regulation win in their last eight games. But Florida backs into the playoffs for the first time since 1999-2000.
The Panthers/Capitals game wasn't exactly picturesque hockey. Lots of turnovers, blown chances and tight checking. But the game turned in the second period when the Capitals lost their starting goalie.
Just 5:39 into the second period and with the Caps up 1-0 on a Jay Beagle first-period goal, Marco Sturm of the Panthers fell on goalie Michal Neuvirth, who remained down in his crease. Enter rookie Braden Holtby, whose last appearance in DC saw him give up three goals in 21 minutes to the Buffalo Sabres.
The hitting picked up, but the Capitals struck next.
The Panthers turned the puck over near the Capitals blue line, and Ovechkin was off to the races. He dished to Marcus Johansson, who fired a shot that Theodore fought off. The rebound went to Ovechkin — unmarked by a single Panthers defenseman or forward Tomas Kopecky, who arrived late — and the captain scored his 37th of the season past his former teammate Jose Theodore.
Brooks Laich — who vowed the Capitals would make the playoffs in a radio interview this week — beat Theodore from the left side exactly two minutes later, sending Theodore to the bench for a few minutes before he re-entered the game.
Goals by Mikael Samuelsson late in the second and Ed Jovanovski early in the third made it interesting. But an Alex Semin power play goal at 18:58 of the third, with Marcel Goc off on a high-sticking call, clinched it.
The Capitals can win the Southeast Division with a victory over the Rangers on Saturday and a Florida loss to Carolina.
The Sabres, meanwhile, saw the Flyers rally for two goals in the third period for the 2-1 win. Coupled with the Capitals regulation victory, their playoff hopes were crushed.