The Washington Capitals clinched their fifth consecutive playoff berth on Thursday night, defeating the Florida Panthers 4-2 inside Verizon Center. Jay Beagle, Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, and Alexander Semin scored for the hosts, who were able to clinch their playoff berth because of the Sabres’ regulation loss in Philadelphia. Washington was able to overcome an injury to Michal Neuvirth, as Braden Holtby made 12 saves on 14 shots for the win. The Capitals can also clinch the Southeast Division for the fifth consecutive year with a win and a Panthers regulation loss on Saturday.
Florida started the game well, earning the majority of the scoring chances early by creating turnovers off their backcheck and not allowing the Capitals to get much possession. Despite that fact, it was Washington who scored first, getting the 1-0 lead when Jay Beagle roofed it in front following a Troy Brouwer shot after 5:42. The Panthers came hard after that goal, responding well and controlling long stretches of play themselves, earning long portions of possession in the attacking zone. Despite this fact, they were not able to draw even as the midway mark of the period passed, and then took a penalty to give the Caps a power play with 9:51 left in the frame.
But the Capitals could not convert on their first man advantage of the game, failing to even get many chances against, and once again it was the Panthers that began to take control following the power play. Florida was then given a power play of their own when Matt Hendricks knocked down Jose Theodore in front, but the DC penalty kill unit was able to kill of their first test of the night with ease. Despite another late flurry by the visitors, they were not able to draw even before the end of the first.
As was the case at the start of the first period, the Panthers got a good number of scoring chances early in the second and controlled the play early, keeping the Capitals on their heels well into the frame. Things took a turn for the worse with 14:21 left in the period when Michal Neuvirth went down with an apparent knee injury, forcing Braden Holtby into the game. The Panthers continued to press and hit the post with a shot in front with 13 minutes left. But again, the Capitals scored against the flow of play as Alex Ovechkin collected a goal off a rush play by Marcus Johansson to make it 2-0.
Brooks Laich scored again just two minutes later, collecting a pass at the top of the circles and rifling it past Theodore for a 3-0 lead, taking complete control of the game in a span of three minutes. However, as has been their MO all season, the Panthers would not go away, and scored to make it 3-1 with 4 and a half minutes left in the frame. Despite more Florida pressure to close the period, it still ended with the Caps ahead 3-1.
Playing more passive hockey to start the third period, the Capitals gave up another goal 42 seconds in to the third period when Ed Jovanovski fluttered one past Holtby. But the goal did not wake the Capitals up, as they continued to wait back in passive defensive form and could not find the gas pedal; they were without a shot well into the period. Despite intense Florida pressure, though, the Caps refused to come out of their shell, and were backed up against the wall.
With 3:06 left in the game, the Caps got a power play when Nicklas Backstrom drew a penalty call. Washington, which had four total shots in the period up until that point, was not able to score on the power play, but Alexander Semin potted an insurance goal to make it 4-2 and send the Capitals to the playoffs.
Playoffs? Playoffs. The Capitals, somehow, someway, have clinched a playoff berth, which likely means that Dale Hunter will be the coach again next season. I, um, am excited that Washington made the playoffs. Now, it’s up to them to actually do something in the playoffs.
Tough go for Michal Neuvirth. After finally regaining his starting job over the last two weeks, Neuvirth was very good until he got hurt on an unfortunate play in front of the Washington net. It looked like a knee injury, and Neuvirth could not put any weight on his leg as he moved to the locker room. Of course, he’s “day-to-day,” but Dany Sabourin has to be on his way.
Yes, they won, and yes, they’re in the playoffs. Was it pretty? No. Did they deserve to win? Probably not. You cannot wait back against good teams like the Capitals did tonight. So now, we wait.
Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Caps for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.