The Verizon Center crowd cheered and Dale Hunter didn’t even know why. The Buffalo Sabres had lost to the Philadelphia Flyers and eliminated themselves from playoff contention, and the Washington Capitals were on their way to knocking off the Florida Panthers.
It wasn’t until they got back to the locker room Thursday night that the Caps discovered, after an up-and-down season full of adversity, injuries and unmet expectations, that their 4-2 victory over the Panthers clinched a playoff spot.
“Not everything’s going to go your way the entire year,” said Brooks Laich, who on Wednesday essentially guaranteed the Caps making the playoffs. “Things are going to change through the course of the season. You have to accept that. You accept the highs, you accept the lows. … We’re just a group of guys that enjoys playing together and we’ll ride this wave.”
Thursday night was the high tide for the Caps. Not only did they wrap up a playoff spot in Game 81, but in beating Florida in regulation, they ensured the Southeast Division title was still in reach. That would require a victory at the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers and a regulation loss by the Panthers on Saturday.
Florida clinched a playoff spot by virtue of Buffalo’s loss.
“It doesn’t matter which position you are. It doesn’t matter what the standings [are] right now,” said captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored his 37th goal. “Most important thing [is a] win. Next game, most important thing right now for us it’s ready for the playoffs.”
At this point, Washington could be seeded third, seventh or eighth and face either the New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins or Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That’s an issue for Saturday and beyond. This victory was about key contributions from Laich (game-winning goal), Ovechkin and Jay Beagle and about Braden Holtby jumping into a nearly impossible situation when Michal Neuvirth went down. Neuvirth left early in the second period with what appeared to be a left leg injury, and Hunter called him “day-to-day.”
That could mean Holtby, who made 12 saves to win in relief, is the man moving forward.
“I don’t want to look forward and do it too much. I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” Holtby said. “We have a game against New York coming up, and that’s what I’m focusing on right now. Every game counts right now for me.”
No game this season counted more than Thursday night against the Panthers. And just like so many games recently, the Caps didn’t make it easy on themselves. They jumped out to a 3-0 lead but watched it melt down to 3-2 before Alexander Semin added insurance in the final minutes.
The relief was palpable afterward. Nicklas Backstrom’s concussion, Mike Green’s myriad injuries and now goaltenders dropping like flies all made for a roller-coaster ride of a season.
“It’s been a battle,” Hunter said. “You know through Nicky’s injuries and stuff, guys battled through it. Greeny being out too at different times, and now goalies being down: A lot of controversy, but you know, it made people stronger and made other people stand up.”
Whether all these problems give the Caps some kind of edge in the playoffs is yet to be determined.
“It might, we’ll see. We had to grind our way in this year. People say we’re just going to the playoffs now but tonight was a playoff hockey game for us,” Laich said. “We’ve been playing playoff hockey games for the last couple weeks.”
Thanks to this victory, they know that playoff hockey will last at least a little while longer.