Coming All the Way Back

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

For about a month, the Washington Capitals obsessed over out-of-town scores, three-point games and all of the outside variables that could have affected their playoff fate.

So it was a welcome change to enter last night's game against the Florida Panthers in control, needing only a single point to win the Southeast Division championship.

And in front of a manic, red-drenched sellout crowd at Verizon Center, the Capitals seized the moment.

With goals from Tomas Fleischmann, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin, as well as another strong performance from Cristobal Huet, the Capitals beat the Florida Panthers, 3-1, to complete a historic comeback and clinch their first playoff berth in five years.

"Oh yeah, this is one of my dreams," said NHL-leading scorer Alex Ovechkin, who didn't register a point but was a threat all game. "Now we're there. Nobody believe in us. They thought we were a done team."

But with wins in 11 of their final 12 games, including seven straight, the Capitals accomplished something that had never been done: making the playoffs after rallying from 14th or 15th place at the season's midpoint.

"There was never a word of 'we couldn't' or 'we wouldn't' or 'we can't,' " Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I just hope I wake up tomorrow, and yeah, we're [still] in."

The Capitals' improbable comeback began when Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving day, was fueled by Ovechkin's record-breaking season and then ignited by three shrewd trade deadline day deals made by General Manager George McPhee, who acquired Fedorov, Huet and sparkplug left wing Matt Cooke, all of whom made major contributions down the stretch.

"It's just an amazing run we have," said Huet, who made 25 saves to earn his ninth straight win. "It's just fun to be a part of this group right now. We're so happy to accomplish this."

The division title gives Washington the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which will begin next week, on Thursday or Friday. Their first-round opponent will be either Philadelphia or Ottawa.

The Capitals' victory also eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes, who wasted their chance to clinch the division Friday night in Raleigh, N.C., where the Panthers beat them, 4-3.

The victory also might have wrapped up the Hart Trophy as league MVP for Ovechkin, who took five shots but was unable to improve upon his league-best 65 goals and 112 points. It also means Boudreau and Backstrom will receive serious consideration for coach and rookie of the year, respectively.

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