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Pro Hockey: Capitals force way into postseason

BY BEATING PANTHERS AND WATCHING

SABRES LOSE, WASHINGTON REACHES

PLAYOFFS ONCE AGAIN

BY ZAC BOYER

WASHINGTON—The questions at the start of the season were not about whether the Washington Capitals would make their fifth consecutive postseason appearance.

They instead revolved around otherwise lofty ideas, like how many games it would take for the team to reach the Stanley Cup Finals and who it would quickly dispatch when it got there.

As typically happens in sports, things don’t always go the way they’re intended. Key injuries, a coaching change and sluggish play this season muddied the Capitals’ path to that goal.

Thursday night at the Verizon Center, though, it all came into focus. Washington’s 4–2 victory over Florida, combined with Philadelphia’s 2–1 victory over visiting Buffalo, allowed the Capitals to qualify for the postseason yet again.

“Not everything’s going to go your way the entire year,” said forward Brooks Laich, who declared Wednesday morning on a radio appearance the Capitals were certain to make the postseason. “I came to camp expecting to be scoring winger and end up being an assignment center for most of the season. 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.”

Nothing else, of course, is guaranteed for the Capitals (41–32–8), who showed resolve unequaled this season in a victory over the Southeast Division-leading Panthers. The team lost goaltender Michal Neuvirth midway through the second period to a gruesome-looking left leg injury, necessitating that rookie Braden Holtby, cold from sitting out the previous two games, enter against a feisty team.

The Capitals had his back, adding to the one-goal lead Jay Beagle provided in the first period with a goals from Alex Ovechkin and Laich over the next four minutes, and Alexander Semin brought the nail with just over a minute left in the game.

Holtby made 12 saves, allowing goals to Florida’s Mikael Samuelsson with under five minutes left in the second and defenseman Ed Jovanovski 42 seconds into the third.

Neuvirth, meanwhile, left having made 13 saves in the first 25:39, and coach Dale Hunter only offered after the game that the veteran would be day to day and evaluated again today.

“It’s kind of a shock,” Holtby said. “Those things do happen, but you never expect them to. I was lucky I came in with a lead, and we padded the lead a bit more for me to try to battle through.”

Florida’s Jose Theodore, the former Capitals goalie who proved himself unreliable in the postseason, struggled again when it mattered.

Theodore allowed four goals on 23 shots. After the third, a slapper by Laich from the slot that the goalie had no chance at, Florida coach Kevin Dineen temporarily pulled Theodore, putting him in only after a 91-second breather.

Florida (37–26–18) could have used more. In control of the Southeast Division for an overwhelming majority of the season, the Panthers now have lost their last five games and eight of their last nine. Should they fall to Carolina on Saturday and should Washington manage a victory on the road against the New York Rangers, the Capitals could capture their fifth consecutive division crown.

“Once we got the third [goal], we knew they were really gonna come,” Laich said of the Panthers. “They had no choice but to throw everything at us. They get one and then they get the second one early in the [third] period, and then it was time to show composure. I thought we did that.”

The sold-out Verizon Center, in the final home game of the regular season, had the atmosphere of a playoff game. Now they’ll get the real thing, which wasn’t always certain throughout the year.

“The guys were doing everything they could to win,” Hunter said. “They’ll be pretty tired tonight after the game. They left everything out there and that’s what winning teams do.”

Zac Boyer: 540/374-5440

zboyer@freelancestar.com

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