As unlikely as it may have seemed nine days ago, the Washington Capitals have defied the odds, shaken off some stinging recent defeats and secured a place in the Stanley Cup playoffs starting next week.
The Caps defeated the Florida Panthers 4-2 last night at Verizon Center before a raucous sellout crowd. Washington took an early 3-0 lead, survived a mid-game rally by Florida, then played aggressively down the stretch. Combined with the Buffalo Sabres’ loss in Philadelphia a few minutes earlier, Caps fans were able to celebrate their team’s success in the final home game of the regular season.
The Caps started the scoring on a rebound by Jay Beagle off a shot by Troy Brouwer to make it 1-0. Beagle was left alone in front of Panthers’ netminder Jose Theodore and had no trouble putting the biscuit in the basket.
Then things began to look grim for the Caps. Michal Neuvirth left the game with a serious knee injury early in the second period, and rookie netminder Braden Holtby came in to the game.
The Caps opened up a 2-0 lead when Alex Ovechkin slid a drop pass to Marcus Johansson then slipped behind the defensemen to bang home the rebound off Johansson’s shot. Two minutes later, Keith AuCoin found Brooks Laich at the top of the left circle. Laich beat Theodore with a quick wrist shot to the upper corner of the net to give the Caps a commanding three goal lead with 30 minutes to play.
Yet the Caps have been unable to hold leads recently. As the Caps shifted to a defensive posture, the Panthers played more aggressively. Florida’s Mikael Samuelsson was left open on the left wing on a 3-on-2 for a clear shot. He beat Holtby high on the glove side to cut the lead to 3-1. When Ed Jovanovski scored on a floater from the point less than one minute into the third period to make it 3-2, the wheels seemed to be coming off once again.
This time, however, the Caps held the fort. Following the goal by Jovanovski, the Caps limited the Panthers to only five more shots in the game. The Caps pressed the forecheck and dominated play in the neutral zone. A power play with three-and-half minutes left in the game allowed the Caps to keep up the pressure. When Alexander Semin put a backhand shot over Theodore’s shoulder and into the net, the arena erupted.
A win on Saturday night against the top-seeded NY Rangers would put the Caps into position to move up in the standings if other teams falter. If Ottawa loses on Saturday night, the Caps move up to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. If Florida loses, the Caps would overtake the Panthers in the Southeast Division and automatically jump to the third seed. If the Caps lose to the Rangers on Saturday, the Caps will turn around next week and face the Rangers again in a seven-game series.