WASHINGTON - 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 post-season 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.
Alexander Semin scored an insurance goal for the Capitals with 1:02 to play.
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 post-season 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 post-season despite dropping eight of its last nine, relying heavily on the losing in overtime and shootouts to gain standings points.
FLYERS 2, SABRES 1
Read beat goalie Ryan Miller on a breakaway with 4:21 left in the game to end Buffalo's bid.
The Sabres needed to beat the Flyers to keep their faint playoff hopes alive heading into their final game of the season. Ville Leino scored for Buffalo.
Penguins 5, Rangers 2
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Marc-Andre Fleury made 35 saves to tie the Pittsburgh franchise record for victories, and the Penguins beat New York to clinch home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang each had a goal and an assist for Pittsburgh, the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference for the fourth consecutive season. They will play Philadelphia in the first round.
Tyler Kennedy and Richard Park also scored to help the Penguins (50-25-6) reach 50 wins for the second time in franchise history. Fleury has 226 victories, matching Tom Barrasso's mark from 1988-2000.
PREDATORS 2, STARS 0
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Pekka Rinne made 28 saves for his fifth shutout of the season, Francis Bouillon scored at 4:28 of the third period, and Nashville beat Dallas to grab back control of its playoff slot with its third win in four games.
With the win and Detroit losing to New Jersey, Nashville moved back into fourth in the Western Conference, a point a head of the Red Wings. Now the Predators need only wrap up the regular season Saturday night at Colorado with a win to start the playoffs at home and finish ahead of Detroit for the first time.
Patric Hornqvist had an assist and clinched the win with a goal with 2 minutes left.
The Stars lost their fourth straight in being eliminated. The Stars came in ninth and needed at least a point, but the loss allowed Los Angeles and Phoenix to clinch berths and put San Jose on the verge
Rinne was back in net for Nashville after sitting out Tuesday night in a shootout win against Minnesota, and he got his NHL-leading 43rd victory by stopping 12 shots in the third.
DEVILS 2, RED WINGS 1
Sykora beat Howard from in front after taking a pass from Patrik Elias. It was Sykora's 20th goal.
The Red Wings were coming off a 3-2 shootout win in St. Louis on Wednesday night.
BRUINS 3, SENATORS 1
OTTAWA (AP) — Anton Khudobin stopped 44 shots in his Boston debut, leading the Bruins past Ottawa.
These teams will likely end up as first-round playoff opponents.
MAPLE LEAFS 3, LIGHTNING 2, OT
Stamkos is trying to become the NHL's first 60-goal scorer since Washington's Alex Ovechkin had 65 in 2007-08, and just the second player to reach that mark in the last 15 years.
HURRICANES 2, CANADIENS 1, SO
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Eric Staal scored in the shootout to lead Carolina past Montreal.
Chad LaRose scored a power-play goal, and Cam Ward made 30 saves before stopping the Canadiens cold in the tiebreaker to give the Hurricanes their second straight victory and first win in a shootout this season.
Blake Geoffrion scored, and Peter Budaj stopped 28 shots for the Canadiens. They were 0 for 7 on the power play before a shootout in which Ward stuffed Lars Eller and David Desharnais and former Hurricane Erik Cole rang the right post on his attempt. Staal ended it when he chipped a wrist shot over Budaj's glove.
ISLANDERS 5, JETS 4
UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) — Michael Grabner scored his second go-ahead goal of the third period with just 46.8 seconds left, John Tavares helped set up two others to reach 50 assists this season, and the New York Islanders wrapped up their home schedule with a victory over Winnipeg.
Grabner, who had given the Islanders a short-lived 4-3 lead with a penalty-shot goal with 8:15 remaining, deflected a shot-pass from defenceman Travis Hamonic to finally put New York ahead for good.
WILD 2, BLACKHAWKS 1, SO