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.
"First thing I said was if that doesn't sew up the Hart [Trophy], then nothing will," Boudreau said.
Ovechkin added: "We never give up, no matter what happen. It's an unbelievable feeling. I never stop believing."
After a shaky first few minutes, the Capitals settled down. Fleischmann's goal came at 7 minutes 19 seconds put them ahead 1-0. Fleischmann whiffed on his first attempt, throwing off the timing of Florida defenseman Branizlav Mezei. Fleischmann, though, chased down the loose puck, deked Craig Anderson and slipped it behind the goalie.
The Capitals, however, weren't able to build on that lead, despite enjoying two five-on-three power plays for a total of two minutes. Also, Huet had to be sharp on a two-on-one opportunity late in the period to ensure the Capitals took their one-goal lead into the first intermission.
The Capitals first-period failures with the man advantage came back to haunt them in early in the second as Kamil Kreps pulled the Panthers even at 1 with a power play goal at 6:47.
Florida continued to put pressure on the Capitals, but Fedorov restored his team's lead at 15:03, firing a slap shot from the top of the circles past Anderson's blocker. Fedorov was set up by superb passes from Mike Green and Semin, who finished with a game-high eight shots.
"He was unbelievable," Boudreau said of Fedorov. "He looked like he was 28. That goal he scored was just as a rocket. He looked as rejuvenated as anyone could be."
Semin clinched the win with a power-play goal at 2:21 of the third period. He teed up a pass from Nicklas Backstrom and fired it past Anderson to put the Capitals ahead 3-1 and set off a wild celebration on the ice and in the stands as everyone could breathe a sigh of relief.
"It was all about pushing through and believing in yourself," Boudreau said. "We had to win seven in a row just to get in. At some point you think they would get tired of pushing. But they didn't, they were awesome."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Jeff Schultz left the game with an undisclosed injury early in the second period and did not return. The team declined to reveal the nature or extent of his injury. With his assist on Semin's third period power-play goal, his 55th of the season, Backstrom set the franchise's rookie assist mark, passing Ovechkin's 54 in 2005-06. . . . Right wing Chris Clark (groin tendon), center David Steckel (broken finger) and defensemen Shaone Morrisonn (upper body) and Brian Pothier (concussion) were out.