At the euphoric end, Alexander Semin’s legs burned from being on the ice so long. After he had gathered the puck behind the goal and began shuffling toward the net, after he had flicked his backhander past former teammate Jose Theodore for the clinching goal — after the loudest gathering at Verizon Center in easily a year unleashed a season of frustration and fury — Semin collapsed behind the net.
It was not pretty. It certainly was not perfect. But they got there. Somehow, in this maddening Washington Capitals season where the only consistent facet of their game became their inconsistency, they delivered a postseason berth after all.
“We had to grind our way in,” Brooks Laich, the game’s No. 1 star said after the Caps held on to beat Florida, 4-2, on Thursday night and, with help from Philadelphia, clinch their fifth straight berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Laich, of course, was the player who didn’t balk Tuesday when asked in an interview with 106.7 The Fan which of the Caps’ missed chances would smart the most if the team failed to make the postseason. “We’re making the playoffs,” he declared, like any player who wanted to face his teammates with a straight face again would say when asked a hypothetical about not making the playoffs. (The alternative, “You know, guys, I can’t see us doing it this year. We just don’t have the heart,” would be a much bigger story, no?)
Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, whose team was in a scrap with the Capitals for the lone playoff spot remaining in the Eastern Conference, leaped at the opportunity to shoot back that Laich was trying to sound like Mark Messier of the Rangers guaranteeing a Game 7 victory in the Eastern Conference finals in 1994, adding that this is a time when teams like the Caps get tight. Did we mention, as of about 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Ryan Miller isn’t going to the postseason and Brooks Laich is?
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” Laich began. “I was expressing a belief in my teammates, that’s it.”
Finally, someone actually believed in this team.
Because even through the cacophonous roar of that crowd when the Caps went up 3-0, there were more than a few doubters with about 15 minutes left in the third period.
For starters, someone fell on the starting goalie’s left knee in the second period. Suddenly the impenetrable Michal Neuvirth limps off toward the trainer’s room. Out comes cold-as-ice Braden Holtby, who fell apart in net the last time he played in a big NHL game that mattered.
The last 15 minutes of Thursday’s game had all the trappings of a season-defining loss, the night the Capitals would bring all their liabilities to bear. All the nights they jumped out to leads and then started retreating in Coach Dale Hunter’s prevent defense were coming back to haunt them, it seemed.
With their postseason in purgatory and their healthy three-goal lead down to a perilous one, a struggling Southeast Division leader began to find its bearings.
All Florida needed was one point — a trip to overtime — to notch the division title. And a Panthers win would have put the Capitals on the brink of missing the playoffs with one game left.
Then it happened. With about nine minutes left, a surge of adrenaline seemed to take over their bodies, fill the arena. It became contagious. The defense refused to be pushed backward. Holtby found his rhythm, stoning the Panthers’ Kris Versteeg with about five minutes left. Laich cleared the puck out of danger.
They kept digging, gnawing, fighting in the corners — trying anything they could to hold off the Panthers. In the final minutes, it was essentially one desperate hockey team trying to make a season of disappointment go away against an equally desperate bunch trying not to throw away the division in the final two weeks of the regular season.
And just as Washington’s worst nightmare was certain to materialize again — the evaporation of a three-goal lead and all the momentum they had built on an evening that truly felt like a playoff evening — Semin gathered that puck off a Laich pass along the boards.
He moved in purposefully from the left side of the net. By the time Theodore tried to poke the puck away, a guy who very well might have been playing his last regular season game in home red marshaled his talents and sent that backhander home.
No. 28, the enigma said not to care enough to ever be a Stanley Cup champion, collapsed in utter exhaustion. The red light went on. The horn blared. The arena vibrated with sound. The Capitals, through all their misfortune, missed opportunity and absolutely miserable nights this season, had found a way back to the postseason.
They are down to a rookie in goal and might be forced to back him up with a career minor leaguer. Mike Green, suddenly a defensive defenseman who seems hamstrung offensively, has scored one point in the last 20 games. Nicklas Backstrom is physically probably in the fourth game of the preseason after missing the past 40 to a concussion.
No matter. They’re in. They have remarkably given themselves a chance to right all their wrongs. And all those offseason changes can wait for at least a week or two.
“I can’t recall a shift that switched it,” Laich said when asked when the momentum changed. He added that watching Buffalo mount a thrilling comeback to save its season when it was three goals down against Toronto the other night ended up as inspiration.
“It said to me the worst thing you can do is stop playing and start giving up the ice,” he said.
The worst thing you can do is stop playing and start giving up the ice.
If that’s not the perfect metaphor for this terribly uneven Caps’ season, I don’t know what it is.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.