By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009
SUNRISE, Fla., April 11 -- Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau wanted his players to accomplish three things in tonight's regular season finale: put forth an inspired effort, set the franchise record for wins and leave BankAtlantic Center without suffering any injuries.
Well, at least they'll be healthy in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals next week.
The Capitals surrendered four goals in the third period, including two in a span of eight seconds, on their way to a humbling 7-4 loss to a Florida Panthers team that will miss the playoffs for the eighth straight season.
On a night when their defense abandoned them, their goaltender struggled with routine shots and the overall effort level ebbed and flowed, at least the Capitals now know which team they'll face in the first round of the playoffs. It will be the New York Rangers, who clinched the seventh seed when the Montreal Canadiens lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-1. The Canadiens will be seeded eighth and face the Boston Bruins.
"I just have a hard time -- just never being able to stick in the NHL, knowing how much I would have given to play," Boudreau said when asked if he was disappointed in his team's energy level. "Defensively, we were so out of whack. What were the shots, 42-41, or something stupid. But it's over and I'm not going to dwell on this game. Hopefully we'll be a lot better come next week."
Goaltender José Theodore yielded six goals on 41 shots and had an especially tough third period.
Alex Ovechkin tied the score at 4 when he beat Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun on a semi-breakaway with 6 minutes 51 seconds remaining in the game.
But Florida regained the lead, 5-4, on the next shift when Panthers defenseman Steve Eminger capitalized on yet another odd-man rush, finishing the play by deking Theodore and slipping the puck between the goalie's skate and the goal post.
Before Theodore and his teammates could regroup, the Panthers were ahead 6-4. Eight seconds after Eminger's goal, Michael Frolik had fired a rebound into the Washington net. Grinder Nick Tarnasky added to the Capitals' misery by scoring his first goal of the season into an empty net with nine seconds remaining. The 18,527 then began hurling toy rats onto the ice, a Florida tradition dating from 1996.
Asked what was worse, the sloppy defense or Theodore, Boudreau said: "It was a combination. We had two-on-ones in the third period. We tied it up with five minutes to go and we end up losing 7-4. That's unheard of. There was an awful lot of breakdowns."
The loss left the Capitals one win short of setting the franchise record for victories. They finished the regular season tied with 50. Ovechkin, meantime, finished second to Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in his bid for a second straight scoring title, 113-110. Ovechkin did, however, match his career best for assists with 54.
Alexander Semin had two goals and an assist and Brooks Laich kept his hot streak going. It wasn't enough in a game where too many of their teammates took too many shifts off, perhaps looking ahead to the postseason.
"We weren't all into it," defenseman John Erskine said. "We wanted to come and have a good game, play a good defensive game and take that into the playoffs. But things didn't go our way. We were sloppy out there."
The brutal finish was surprising considering how well the Capitals had started the night. Laich opened the scoring with his fourth goal in four games at 10:15. Semin picked off a poorly executed breakout pass by Panthers defenseman Keith Ballard, then slipped a cross ice pass to Laich, who was cutting through the slot.
Washington couldn't hang on to the lead, though. David Booth (two goals, three assists) retrieved the puck from the corner, took a few strides into the circle, then whipped a short angle wrist shot toward the Washington net. The puck appeared to hit Keith Aucoin's leg, changing direction to beat Theodore at 15:50 to send the game into the second period tied at 1.
In the second period, Radek Dvorak jumped out of the penalty box, took a pass from Karlis Skrastins and raced in alone on Theodore. Dvorak wound up and fired a slap shot from the slot over Theodore's blocker at 8:20.
Bryan McCabe made it 3-1 on the power play at 11:58, snapping a drop pass from Booth through Theodore. But the game went into the third period 3-2 thanks to a fortuitous bounce and nice shot by Semin. Ovechkin's crossing pass hit Tarnasky's skate and went right to Semin, who deked an unsuspecting Vokoun.
"Obviously it's not how we wanted to end the year," forward Matt Bradley said. "We just have to dwell on the good things that happened this season -- there were a lot of them -- and get ready for the playoffs."
Capitals Notes: Left wing Donald Brashear missed his 14th consecutive game with a sprained knee, while defenseman Tom Poti sat out a third straight game to rest his nagging groin muscle injury. Both are expected to be ready for the start of the playoffs. . . . Forward Boyd Gordon was sidelined for a 10th straight game with a broken finger. Boudreau hopes Gordon will also be ready for the playoffs.