Washington's 82-game regular season came to and end on Sunday at Verizon Center, and with it, the Capitals' four-game winning streak also came to a halt. The Florida Panthers blanked the Caps 2-0 on Sunday in the finale, but the result really didn't matter for either side.
A night after making 30 stops in a home ice shutout over the Buffalo Sabres, Panthers goalie James Reimer started again and made 38 saves to whitewash Washington, earning his 18th win of the season in the process.
"The goal was just to play the right way," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "It was sort of a non-contact game; it was quick. I think when you get to this point, these game 82s are sometimes anticlimactic."
Video: Trotz on the final game, playing the Maple Leafs
Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie scored what would prove to be the game-winning goal while Florida was shorthanded late in the second period. MacKenzie beat Caps goalie Braden Holtby from the left circle off the rush at 15:47 of the second.
As was planned in advance, Holtby yielded the net to Philipp Grubauer to start the third. Florida scored its second goal on its only power play of the game, getting a Denis Malgin goal at 9:47 of the third to account for the 2-0 final.
The Caps played strong at five-on-five, limiting the Panthers to just 18 shots and no goals at even strength. Washington was guilty of overpassing at times, but it still generated double-digit shot totals in each of the game's three periods.
Video: ALL CAPS 4/9/17
For the Caps, the big story was the NHL debut of Garrett Mitchell, Washington's sixth-round choice (175th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. One day after Marcus Johansson - the Capitals' first-round pick in that same 2009 draft - played in his 500th career NHL game in Boston, Mitchell finally got the call to report to Washington to play in his first game in the league.
The recall followed six full seasons of riding buses with the AHL Hershey Bears; including the playoffs Mitchell has skated in nearly 400 games at the AHL level, serving as the Bears' captain in each of the last two seasons.
Trotz installed Mitchell into Washington's starting lineup on the right side of a line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and Backstrom purposefully got kicked out of the faceoff circle on the opening draw so that Mitchell would take the opening faceoff of his first game in the league.
"I was excited for Garrett Mitchell," says Trotz. "I think that's a really great story. [He's a] quality person, and [it was] really first-class. On the opening draw, Backy tells the ref that he wants to get kicked out, so he did. That was just good. The guys were really great and I think they recognize the quality of the individual that he is."
"I don't even know if I saw the puck drop before I tried to swipe at it," recounts Mitchell. "I guess I'm 0-for-1 on draws in the NHL."
Video: Caps Postgame Locker Room 4/9/17
Maybe so, but Mitchell also became just the 13th of the 30 players chosen in the sixth round in 2009 to reach the NHL. You couldn't take the smile off his face before, during or after the game, either. He made his debut in front of his parents, his wife, his mother-in-law and his two daughters, the youngest of which was born less than two weeks ago.
"Honestly, I was in awe just to be starting," says Mitchell. "The last two weeks here with our daughter being born and then getting the call [Saturday] night, it's a surreal experience. That just kind of capped it off there. I never would have expected to start.
"It's a great story. I'm excited and happy that it was able to happen."
Washington finishes out with a record of 11-2-1 over its final 14 games, and it also learned the identity of its first-round playoff foe. The Caps will take on the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one; the Leafs became the last of the NHL's 16 playoff teams to nail down a spot when they clinched with a win on Saturday night over the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the Leafs failed to get a point in their own season finale, a 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Boston nudged ahead of Toronto in the standings, leaving the Leafs to face the Capitals.
Video: Condensed Game: Panthers @ Capitals
As for Florida, the Panthers are on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs are concerned, missing out a season after rolling up a franchise record 103 points and winning the Atlantic Division title. Opting to go all in on analytics, the Panthers are now at a crossroads. They haven't made consecutive playoff appearances in two decades and they've missed out altogether in 14 of the last 16 seasons.
The Panthers reassembled their front office with a full on bent to analytics, leading to somewhat of a rift between the brass and the coaching staff, a rift that led to the firing of coach Gerard Gallant back in November. Throw in a spate of serious injuries to key players and the Cats were left spinning their wheels all season long. They finished with two straight wins, but dropped six in a row and were outscored 28-12 in those half dozen games immediately preceding the two shutout wins. The Panthers finish up with a lackluster 35-36-11 record, 22 points south of last season's total and in sixth place in the Atlantic Division.