And thanks to Carolina’s 6-2 loss to Tampa Bay, Washington is set to face the New York Rangers in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
The Capitals can officially turn their focus on a postseason that they’ve waited a year to reach since last season’s first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
“It’s the 82nd game,” veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. “To be honest, we’re looking ahead. At times we worked hard and at times we were sloppy. We’ll see, moving forward, how much more mental commitment will do for our game, how much sharper we’re going to be. . . . It’s the last game of the year. It’s not going to change our group.”
While the Capitals were plodding along against the Panthers, whom they would face was being determined in another Southeast Division matchup.
New York had ceded control of its playoff chances earlier in the week with a 3-0 loss to Atlanta but rebounded with a 5-2 victory over New Jersey on Saturday afternoon that kept its postseason hopes flickering.
The Rangers needed a loss by Carolina, which held the tie-breaker between the teams, though, to clinch a playoff berth after missing out in 2010 on the final day of the regular season.
The Hurricanes obliged with a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and in turn surrendered the eighth seed to New York.
This will mark the second time in three years that the Capitals will meet the Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs. Dates and times for the opening round are expected to be announced Monday.
Washington had already clinched the No. 1 seed in the East by virtue of the Philadelphia Flyers’ loss Friday night and with a game that meant nothing, there was little life to the contest. The Capitals and Panthers, who are ranked last in the East with 30 wins and 72 points, played nearly 54 minutes of scoreless hockey until Bill Thomas scored the only goal 13 minutes 55 seconds into the third period. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who is expected to start Game 1 of the playoffs, finished with 22 saves.
Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun recorded his sixth shutout of the season with 28 saves, but Washington never really challenged the veteran.
“We didn’t have a lot of polish,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I thought we were very, very sloppy today and I think that comes with the mind-set of ‘Let’s get this over with’ type thing. But it’s over, so now there’s no reason for that to happen anymore.”
That Washington benefited from the privilege of playing a low-pressure contest and could rest veterans Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm only speaks to the surge it has made over the last 20 games of the season.
The Capitals went 16-3-1 after Feb. 26, a day that started with them trailing Philadelphia for the top spot in the East by 12 points.
Since then, though, Washington added three players at the trade deadline who helped add extra spark just as the team started to emerge from the growing pains of installing a defensive-oriented system midseason.
Over that stretch, Washington allowed only 37 goals for an average of 1.85 against per outing that demonstrated a team with a fully formed identity in its own zone and game plan.
The Capitals talked about maintaining those good habits against the Panthers, but even though they didn’t, there wasn’t anyone dwelling on the loss — only players poised for the second season that awaits.
“We could have had a better game than we did, but it’s nice to finally get to business here,” Karl Alzner said. “With the playoffs, we’ve all wanted to get back so bad after last year, so I think we’re all excited for that.”
Capitals note: Defenseman Mike Green did not make the trip to Florida with the team and missed his 20th consecutive game since suffering a concussion on Feb. 25.
Asked why Green, who said Friday he expected to play in the finale, didn’t play, Boudreau said: “It was the best thing for him right now. . . . We didn’t want to foolishly take a chance, after talking to Mike, that somebody would shoot a puck off his head accidentally or [that Green would] needlessly get hit in the wrong, vulnerable position.”