- Friday, April 6, 2012 6:58 AM
- Written By: Josh Marks
What a night in Chinatown. Wow. I was rocking the red with more than 18,000 Washington Capitals fans at the Verizon Center in a must-win game for the Caps in the second-to-last game of the regular season. When the night began, the Caps held a very tenuous lead for the eighth and final playoff spot with Buffalo breathing down their necks. The Caps and Sabres were tied at 88 points with the Caps owning the tiebreaker. The Caps played the Panthers while the Sabres played at Philadelphia.
Many anxious Caps fans were wondering which team would show up. Would it be the desperate team that eked out recent shootout wins against Boston and Montreal? Or would it be the team that laid an egg against the Sabres 5-1 at home and blew a lead late against the Lightning and Steven Stamkos? The Caps started strong with goals by Jay Beagle, Alex Ovechkin and Brooks Laich to take a 3-0 lead and chase Panthers goalie and former Capital Jose Theodore out of the net. Curiously, only minutes later Cats coach Kevin Dineen put Theodore back in the game. A very curious coaching decision not keeping Scott Clemmensen in the game.
Then a freak accident injured Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth as a Panthers player seemed to have fallen on Neuvirth's leg. Neuvirth was in obvious pain as he was helped to the locker room. In a season of adversity for the Caps, this was but another chapter. Number one veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun is already out for the season and now the Caps would have to rely on backup netminder Braden Holtby to keep their posteason hopes alive.
The Cats clawed their way back into the game, and after scoring an early goal in the third period to make it 3-2, Caps fans were nervous given the history of the Caps blowing leads and choking in big time games. The Panthers also have a recent history of taking games into overtime. But 18,000 plus fans at the VC had one eye on the ice and one eye on the out of town scoreboard, so when the Sabres-Flyers game became final with Philly winning 2-1, a thunderous roar came up from the stands and the Caps players definitely noticed.
Did Caps fans will their team to victory? Perhaps. All I know is that the energy in the building was amazing after finding out the Sabres had lost with about seven minutes left in the Caps game and a 3-2 lead. The Caps players seemed to have fed off the energy because they survived some great chances by the Panthers and then Alex Semin scored the biggest goal of his career with a backhand shot top shelf over Theodore's shoulder as four Panthers stood and watched helplessly as Semin worked his magic.
As the seconds ticked down, the Verizon Center was rocking as Caps players saluted the fans at center ice and celebrated an improbable playoff berth in this roller coaster season. Buffalo had a great run and they will be competitive for years to come. But tonight the Caps showed heart and character, two words not usually associated with this team.
Congrats to the Panthers, who also clinched a playoff spot because of the Buffalo loss. On Saturday the Caps have a chance to win the Southeast Division by beating the Rangers at MSG and the Panthers losing to the Hurricanes at BankAtlantic Center in regulation. Either way, the Capitals and Panthers will be dancing into the NHL playoffs.
Here is video of the sights and sounds from the end of the game last night at the Verizon Center as the Caps and their fans celebrated the team's fifth straight posteason berth in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs.