WASHINGTON (AP) — The Florida Panthers ended one of the longest playoff droughts in major North American sports Thursday night despite a 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals, who also earned a postseason bid to complete the eight-team field for the Eastern Conference.
Both teams qualified after Buffalo lost 2-1 at Philadelphia, eliminating the Sabres. Still to be determined is the winner of the Southeast Division.
The Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, but they also will win their first division title in franchise history if they gain at least a point at home against Carolina or if the Capitals lose to the New York Rangers on Saturday, the final day of the regular season.
In a wacky game that included three goalie changes in a 6-minute stretch in the second period, the Capitals raced to a 3-0 lead with goals from Jay Beagle, Alex Ovechkin and Brooks Laich.
Of significant concern for Washington is a left leg injury that sent Michal Neuvirth to the locker room, leaving Braden Holtby as the only healthy netminder on the roster.
Mikael Samuelson and Ed Jovanovski scored to start a comeback that fell short for the Panthers, who switched from Jose Theodore to Scott Clemmensen and back to Theodore in the second period.
The Panthers haven’t played a playoff game since 2000. Only six franchises from the four major U.S. sports leagues have gone longer without a postseason appearance: the Buffalo Bills (NFL), Baltimore Orioles (MLB), Toronto Blue Jays (MLB), Kansas City Royals (MLB), Washington Nationals (MLB) and Pittsburgh Pirates (MLB).
Florida enters the postseason despite dropping eight of its last nine, relying heavily on the losing in overtime and shootouts to gain standings points.
Beagle gave the Capitals the early lead, putting in the rebound after Theodore made a save on Troy Brouwer. It was Beagle’s fourth goal of the season and second in three games.
Ovechkin doubled the lead in the second with his 37th goal of the season, starting the play with a drop pass to Marcus Johansson, then putting in the rebound after Theodore stopped Johansson’s shot.
The goaltender carousel began when Panthers left wing Marco Strum stumbled in front of the Capitals net and fell on Neuvirth’s left leg. Neuvirth lay on the ice, unable to move until play was stopped at 5:39 of the second period. He couldn’t put any weight on his left skate as teammates Ovechkin and Karl Alzner helped him to the bench.
With Tomas Vokoun out indefinitely with a groin injury, the Capitals were forced to go with youngster Holtby, playing only his sixth game of the season. Theodore was then chased by Laich’s drive from the left circle that made it 3-0 at 9:49 of the period. Clemmensen entered, but he faced only one shot before coach Kevin Dineen sent Theodore back in 91 seconds later. Samuelson’s beat Holtby from the left circle to get the Panthers on the board late in the second, and Jovanovski got credit for a deflected goal that pulled the Panthers within one in the first minute of the third.
Alexander Semin scored the insurance goal for the Capitals with 1:02 to play.