WASHINGTON - Make room in the playoffs for MVP front-runner Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
Tomas Fleischmann, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin scored for the Capitals, who clinched the Southeast Division title with a 3-1 victory over the Florida Panthers on Saturday night. The win was also the Capitals' seventh straight, the franchise's longest in 15 years.
The Capitals finished last in the Southeast each of the last three season and were still there as late as Dec. 30, but their steady climb had already begun. With nearly every game in March and April a must-win, they ended the regular season by winning 11 of 12 and 14 of 18 and became the first NHL team to make the playoffs after sitting at 14th or 15th in the conference at the halfway mark.
Long before the final horn sounded, the sea of red-clad fans had turned the arena into an earsplitting din of cheers of their team, "M-V-P!" chants for their star player, a chorus of "Bruuuuuuce" for their coach. The owner responded by blowing a kiss to the crowd.
When the clock hit 0:00, Ovechkin hopped into the arms of goaltender Cristobel Huet, and the Capitals were on the way to the playoffs.
The Capitals needed only 4 1/2 months to go from worst in the NHL to Southeast Division champions. Washington snagged its first post-season berth since 2003 - and put their Russian superstar in hockey's showcase tournament for the first time.
Huet, a late-season acquisition like Fedorov, made 25 saves to win his ninth straight start and earned chants of "Hip, hip, Hu-et!"
Ovechkin didn't find the net, but he'll end the regular season as the NHL's runaway leading goal-scorer with 65, the most in the NHL in a dozen years. He's also a sure bet to win the points title with 112, making him the fifth player to lead the league in both in the last 35 years, an elite group that includes Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Phil Esposito, Jarome Iginla and Guy Lafleur.
The Capitals got to the playoffs by beating a team to whom they already owed a huge thank-you note. The Panthers prevented Carolina from clinching the Southeast by defeating the Hurricanes 4-3 on Friday night, Florida's first win in Raleigh since 2002.
Without that Panthers win, the Capitals still would have qualified for the playoffs with a victory over Florida, but with a much lower seeding. As it is, they'll be seeded third in the Eastern Conference and will enjoy home-ice advantage in the first round, while the Hurricanes will be home for the post-season.
Washington had a 1-0 lead after the first period with a falling-down goal from Fleischmann, who dragged the puck in front of the crease and got off his shot while being tripped by goaltender Craig Anderson.
The Panthers tied it in the second period with a shot that barely went into the net, a goal so easy to miss that the officials did indeed miss it. Play continued after Kamil Kreps' second-effort shot went through Huet's legs, and only a replay review during a stoppage revealed that the puck crossed the line at the far post and then popped out of the net.
The Capitals retook the lead late in the second with a pinpoint cross-ice pass from Semin that set up a breakaway for Fedorov, who beat Anderson stick side with a slap shot from the left circle. Semin made it 3-1 in the third with a power-play slap shot, then was buried under a pile of teammates.
The Capitals were easily the worst the NHL had to offer - 6-14-1 - when coach Glen Hanlon was fired on Thanksgiving Day and replaced by career minor league coach Bruce Boudreau, who turned the team's personality upside down by introducing an attacking style featuring the league's most prolific offensive player (Ovechkin), the NHL's top goal-scoring defenceman (Mike Green, 18 goals) and a rookie of the year contender (Nicklas Backstrom, franchise-rookie record 69 assists).
The division title is the fourth in Capitals history and the first since 2000-01.
Notes: Washington has allowed just 37 goals in its last 20 games ... The Panthers finished with 38 wins, their most since a club-record 43 in 1999-2000, the last time they reached the playoffs. ... Huet's winning streak is the longest for a Capitals goaltender since Pete Peeters also won nine in a row from Jan. 28 to March 3, 1987.