HAPPY BERTH DAY:

Whatever happens this off-season in the Washington Capitals organization, it will have to wait until Alex Ovechkin and company are finished with the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Its OK Caps fans to say the “P” word, it is also OK to exhale, at least until next week. On Thursday night the Capitals defeated the Florida Panthers, 4-2 at Verizon Center, to clinch their fifth straight post season berth and 23rd in team history.

This was a collective team effort as 10 different Capitals found their way onto the scoresheet and outhit the Panthers 40-23.  Washington played with intensity they will need Saturday in New York and beyond.

The win, like most this season wasn’t pretty and was downright strange at times. The Capitals jumped out to a 3-0 lead only to see the Southeast division leading Panthers close to within 3-2. The Panthers needed just one point to clinch a playoff berth, and the Capitals needed a regulation victory coupled with a Buffalo Sabres loss in regulation to do the same.

Buffalo went into Thursday night’s game with a 25-0-2 record when leading after two periods of play. Thanks to the Flyers Marc-Andrea Bourdon and Matt Read, who scored a breakaway goal with just 4:21 left in the game, Buffalo is now 25-1-2 when leading after two periods this season. The 2-1 loss officially eliminated the Sabres from the playoff race.

Like the Capitals (sorry fans), the Sabres have to be one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL this season. Especially when you take into account all of the money they spent this past off-season acquiring free agents such as Christian Ehrhoff, who has been out of the lineup since hurting his knee last week in Washington.

Unlike the Sabres, the Capitals have a chance to right the ship. Not only are the Capitals in the playoffs for a fifth straigh season, but with Washington's win in regulation they can still win their fifth straight Southeast title if they beat the best team in the Eastern Conference (New York Rangers) on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. Florida needs just one point to clinch the division, and by the way, the Panthers host the --eehemm-----Carolina Panthers in Sunrise Florida on the same day.

How is that No.8 seed looking folks?

Even though Florida backed in tonight and is struggling lately, this is not the NFL where teams like the Bengals back in and are one and done. In the NHL, they play 82 games and the Panthers get their props from this writer as they clinched their first playoff berth since Jesus Christ was a kid. Sorry if I offended anybody with one, but it is Easter.

The Panthers have not played a playoff game since 2000. According to the Associated Press, 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).

The flip side Panther fans is that in the NHL, 16 teams make the playoffs, (8 from each conference) so this is an ugly impressive streak. I live in Florida and can tell you that listening to the Cats announcers talk at the end of the game you would have thought they won the Eastern Conference. At any rate, good for Kevin Dineen and Stephen Weiss.

The only season in which the Panthers won a playoff series was way back in 1995-96. In a memorable four game series, the Panthers were swept by the Joe Sakic led Colorado Avalanche who won the cup in the third overtime of game No. 4. As I said, the Panthers are not exactly playing their best hockey. The Cats have lost eight of nine and have used the NHL’s gift point system to gain points in the standings by relying heavily on the losing in overtime and shootouts. But then again, so have the Washington Capitals.

Washington earned three additional points by losing games beyond regulation since March 6, and has played in eight overtime games in their last 19 contests.

However, it does not really matter how you get there, it is what you do now that you are there. The Capitals have an opportunity to right a ship that has been drifting around with no set destination and captain at times. That is not a knock on Alex Ovechkin, it's just that Washington has been suffering from an identity crisis for two seasons now. They can make this a successful season with a good showing in the post season.

DOES ANYONE REALLY WANT TO PLAY WASHINGTON?

The Capitals appear to be a team that many, especially the top seeded NY Rangers may not want to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Washington defeated the Rangers in five games last year, and four years ago overcame a 3-1 series hole and beat the Blue Shirts in seven games to win the series.

I know the Rangers are playing great hockey, but I have a feeling that all the Caps wanted to do was get back to this point ever since the final horn sounded last season after they were swept by Tampa in round two.

The Capitals have a plethora of offensive talent that can strike at any time, and just when a team thinks they are in control of a game, names like Ovechkin and Semin can burn you, and that is what happened to Florida Thursday night as the Caps won the season series by the same count they won the game. Not to mention this is the first time in a few seasons that Washington is entering the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup without the pressure of being one of the best regular season teams.

The Cats outshot the Caps in the first and second period but still trailed 3-1. Florida seemed to have a decisive advantage in offensive zone possession but Washington struck first for the 41st this season and won their 28th game when doing so. Since Dale Hunter took over as head coach on Nov. 28, the Capitals are 23-3-5 when scoring first.

Jay Beagle scored the only goal of the first period as Troy Brouwer’s shot hit Beagle in the slot, and he was able to snap the rebound off the crossbar and into the net before goaltender Jose Theodore could react. It was Beagle’s fourth goal of the season, and gave an indication as to why the Caps may be a dangerous team this spring. In post seasons past, the Caps third and fourth lines rarely produced big goals, and Beagles goal was the biggest the fourth line has produced all year this season.

MUSICAL GOALIES:

Things got a little crazy at the start of the second period. The hitting intensified and during a span of six minutes, the two teams would change their goalies three times. The Caps victory tonight may have been sweet, but it also may have come at a steep price.

The first goalie change occurred when Caps starter Michael Neuvirth injured his left leg when former Capital Marco Sturm seemed to stumble and fell backwards into Neuvy. This caused his leg to bend in an odd direction, even for a goalie. Neuvirth laid there for a minute, and when the referee realized he could not get up he blew the whistle and stopped the play.

Neuvy left the ice and was replaced by Braden Holtby, who appeared to be shaky to start, but settled in to stop 12 of 14 shots in relief. With Tomas Vokoun out indefinitely with a groin injury, the Capitals could be entering the playoffs with a rookie goalie between the pipes for the second consecutive season. Last season Neuvirth disposed of the Rangers in five games before faltering badly as did his team in round two as the Tampa Bay Lightning swept the Caps in four straight games.

Immediately upon his arrival, Holtby was met with pressure from the Panthers as they continued to dominate the forecheck. It even appeared as if the Cats had scored, but Holtby and his team caught a huge break when Florida’s Mikael Samuelsson hit the post with a shot instead of the wide open net he was literally standing in front of by himself.

The goal would have tied the game at one, but instead what followed changed the Panthers fortunes dramatically, and could be another sign as to why the Caps could be tougher than expected next week.

Washington capitalized on the Florida mistake as team captain Alex Ovechkin made it 2-0 in a flash. The Great 8 collected a Florida turnover by Dmitry Kulikov and rushed up the left side. He left the puck for Marcus Johansson, went to the net, collected the rebound and flicked it under the crossbar from a tight angle.

The Capitals were literally pouncing on the Cats at this point, and taking advantage of a reeling Panthers team. That is something Washington has done in recent victories but hasn’t done with consistency all season.

Jose Theodore became the second goalie to take a seat when he was yanked, albeit briefly, when Brooks Laich beat him with a shot from the left circle that made it 3-0 at 9:49 of the middle frame. Scott Clemmensen entered, but faced only one shot before coach Kevin Dineen sent Theodore back in 91 seconds later. The goal was Laich’s 16th of the season and his first since March 16.

Dineen was seen talking to Theodore on the bench and appeared to make the move to help Jose calm down, which seemed odd for a veteran goalie. The Panthers didn’t get to this point by laying down when falling behind and cut the lead to 3-1 at 15:41 of the second period when Mikael Samuelsson did hit the net as he snapped a shot from the left circle past Holtby for his 13th of the season. Ed Jovanovski beat the rookie goalie with a shot reminiscent of the one that Russ Tyler (Kennan Thompson) took in the Mighty Ducks movies. Jovanovski caught the puck out of midair and rushed to lay it down to shoot. This caused a knuckle ball type of shot that deflected off seemingly everything and past Holtby 42 seconds into the third period to get the Panthers back within a goal.

Not to worry Caps fans, Washington is unbeatable with a lead after two periods this season. Dale Hunters squad has gone 21-1-4 when leading after the first period, which is tied for ninth in the NHL and are 23-0-1 when leading after two periods, third in the NHL (.958 win percentage).

FREE AGENT TO BE ICES VICTORY:

Soon to be free agent Alexander Semin ended any doubt with 1:02 remaining in the game. The Panthers Marcel Goc was called for a late and unexpected high sticking minor that gave the Caps a power play. Washington did not officially score with the extra man, but the Capitals had the Cats reeling and Alexander Semin finished them off when he flipped a pretty backhanded shot past Theodore (19-saves/23-shots) to ice the 4-2 win. The goal was Semin’s 21st of the season and he now has registered 36 points (17-G 19-A) in 40 career games against the Florida Panthers and has six points this season (3-G, 3A) in four games. The winger has tallied eight points (3G, 6A) in his last eight games.

Semin is slated to become an unrestricted free agent once the season ends. According to Capgeek.com, His $6.7 million salary is the highest of any prospective free agent set to hit the market. Next is Ryan Smyth ($6.25) of the Oilers, and future Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom ($6.2). The prize catch this off-season is expected to be New Jersey Devils winger Zach Parise.

Parise (31G, 37A) has outperformed Semin by 16-points this season and without him last season (injury), the Devils failed to qualify for the playoffs. With him and his production, the Devils could play the Capitals in the first round as a No.6 seed in the East, if Washington wins the Southeast division.  

The only way Alex No.2 will earn that much money next season is if he wins the Conn Smyth trophy as Stanley Cup Playoff MVP. If that happens, it is a win-win proposition for all involved.

The Panthers already knew they were in the playoffs at that point, because the score from the Flyers-Sabres game was posted on the scoreboard during a stoppage in play and the Capitals fans at Verizon Center let out a loud cheer as both teams had a common enemy tonight.

Tonight’s game marked the final home contest of the regular season for Washington. The Capitals have not lost their home finale in regulation since April 7, 2007 vs. Buffalo, going 4-0-1 in that span and outscoring their opponents 19-11. This was the third time the Capitals hosted the Panthers in their last regular-season home game. Washington is 4-0 against Florida in home finales, outscoring the Panthers 12-5 in that span.

It is a shame that the Caps cannot play the Panthers in the first round. The Capitals have gone 20-8-1 against the Southeast Division-rival Florida Panthers over the last 29 games, outscoring them 100-71 during that span. The Capitals have not lost to the Panthers in their last five visits to the Verizon Center (1/8/11-1/7/12). Washington has outscored Florida 20-6 during that time, with the last two meetings resulting in Caps shutouts (3-0 on Oct. 18 and 4-0 on Jan. 7).

PENALTY KILL PEAKING:

Another reason the Capitals could be dangerous is their penalty kill is peaking at the right time. The Caps killed off their lone chance tonight and have now killed off 24 of its opponents’ last 26 power-play opportunities (93%) dating back to March 16 (ten games). Washington has allowed only two power-play goals in its last 11 games.

Killing penalties has proven to be a bit more crucial to playoff success than scoring with the extra man. The Boston Bruins power play did not produce a goal during their first round series vs. the Montreal Canadiens last year. Boston was 0 for 21 in the series and of the 12 teams that played at least seven playoff games last year, the Bruins were next to last with the extra man. However, Boston had the fourth best penalty killing unit out of those same 12 teams with the same criteria. The Bruins were second best of the seven teams that played at least 11 games.

The Capitals are now 11-1-0 this season when the former young guns, now known as the “Core Four” are in the lineup. That is another reason the Capitals may very well be this year’s version of the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers (No.8 seed to play in Finals).

The Flyers mad the playoffs after beating the Rangers in a shootout on the final day of the season, then came back from a three games to none deficit against the Boston Bruins to win their secound round series in seven games. Not to mention they were losing 3-0 in the seventh game on the road. Philly overcame it all and made it to the Finals as the No.8 seed.

This Caps team has more talent than did that Flyers team, and with a healthy Ovechkin, Semin, Nick Backstrom, and Mike Green the Capitals could surprise many teams. You never know, Braden Holtby could be the fourth (Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward, and Annti Niemi) rookie to win a Stanley Cup and collect the Conn Smyth Trophy (MVP). However, this is the National Hockey League and if you believe the commercial promoting the NHL playoffs, history will be made, then you have to think why not Washington. This could be their year even after it wasn’t their year. HUH?

THEY SAID IT:

This year it was kind of a struggling season nobody knows who's going to be in playoffs, us or Buffalo. Buffalo was fighting a lot and today when we see the score sheet - Philly help us a lot and give us a break."- ALEX OVECHKIN following Thursdays 4-2 win.

It's been a long 10 years. You wonder if you're doing the right thing. At the end of the day, it was worth staying."-  Stephen Weiss, who has been with the Panthers since he was drafted No. 4 overall as a teenager in 2001.

The guys responded real well tonight, we got on the board right away, got up a couple and were able to hold onto the lead. It got exciting but we’re very happy to be in the playoffs right now.”- Caps Winger Troy Brouwer

PLEASE STICK WITH CAPITALS CORNER:

As the Stanley Cup playoffs start writers and bloggers from all walks of life will emerge as featured NHL writers. Kevin Thomas and I ask that you remember when looking for your Caps playoff coverage to check here on Capitals Corner first. 

On Tuesday evening, Kevin and I will be hosting a special Stanley Cup Playoff edition of Z-Best Sports Talk on Fan vs. Fan Radio via BLOG TALK RADIO. I will have Bram Weinstein from ESPN on Tuesday to discuss the Caps chances. Bram is formerly of WTEM Sports Talk 980 in Washington D.C and hosted his own talk show for seven years in the nation’s capital.

Featured columnist Kevin Thomas and I will cover each first match-up and give you a comprehensive look at the Capitals first round opponent. So remember, please stick with Capitals Corner for all of your Washington Capitals, and NHL hockey needs throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.