|Criostobal Huet earned some admiration from his teammates for stopping 25 shots in the Capitals 3-1 win over Florida, the ninth straight win for the Washington goalie.
WATCH: Caps wrap up the Southeast title
Less than six months ago, the Washington Capitals
had the worst record in the Eastern Conference at 6-14-1, a performance that prompted General Manager George McPhee
to replace coach Glen Hanlon
with lifelong minor-league bench boss Bruce Boudreau
Thirty-seven wins later, the Capitals are Southeast Division champions.
Needing just one point to claim the title following the Carolina Hurricanes’ 4-3 loss to the Florida Panthers on Friday night, the Caps got two. Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin each had a goal and an assist, and Cristobal Huet made 25 saves as Washington’s improbable run to the division title came to fruition with a 3-1 win over the Panthers at a raucous Verizon Center on Saturday night.
The win was the Capitals’ seventh straight, as they ran the table to capture the division crown. Washington, which was in last place in the Southeast as late as Dec. 30, has not been on such a tear in 15 years. It’s also the first time the Caps have reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2003.
Remarkably, they also became the first NHL team to make the playoffs after sitting at 14th or 15th in the conference at the halfway mark.
''There was never a word of 'We couldn't' or 'We won't' or 'We can't,''' said Boudreau, who will likely be a candidate for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach. ''It was always pushing through and believing in ourselves. I just hope I wake up tomorrow and look and 'We are in.' This whole season's been a dream.''
It’s certainly been a dream season for Alex Ovechkin, who was held off the scoresheet on Saturday night but finished the season with 65 goals, the most by an NHL player in more than a decade.
''This is one of my dreams,'' Ovechkin said of reaching the postseason. ''Now we're there. It's only one step. Now we can think about playoff games.''
Facing the same team that did them a huge favor 24 hours earlier in Carolina, the Capitals grabbed a 1-0 lead when Tomas Fleischmann beat Craig Anderson with a nifty move 7:19 into the game. Florida put a scare into the capacity crowd in the second when Kamil Kreps beat Huet to tie the game with a power-play goal at 6:47.
But Fedorov restored Washington’s lead a little more than eight minutes later, when he took a long pass from Semin and ripped a slap shot from between the circles past Anderson to make it 2-1.
“We took it one night at a time; otherwise, we would have been very busy calculating all that stuff that’s been going on,” said Fedorov, who was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the trade deadline. “It was just about focus. We just kept things simple.”
The celebration really got under way once Semin gave the Caps a two-goal lead with a power-play goal at 2:21 of the third. Huet faced just five shots in the final period as Washington tightened up defensively to assure itself of its first division title since the 2000-01 season.
“If you want to win, you’ve got play tight,” said Huet, who was also picked up at the deadline from the Montreal Canadiens and has won nine consecutive decisions. “We worked very hard for it. The more we were winning, the more we believed in ourselves. It wasn’t easy at all. Everybody was winning. It’s just unbelievable. We’re so happy right now.”
Wearing a red Capitals’ jersey, team owner Ted Leonsis celebrated with family and friends in his private box when the final horn sounded. With the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, Leonsis is confident his team can go on a run.
''There's a little bit of destiny in this team,'' he said. ''They're very confident. It might be that they're young and that they don't know history. They don't know about anything but looking forward.''
That starts with Boudreau, who said he would be back at the arena early Sunday morning to begin preparations for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Boudreau said. “It’s great, but you have to understand that it’s only the phase one of what you really want to accomplish. Phase two is next week, so we have to be ready to see who we’re going to play.”
All Florida coach Jacques Martin could do was admire what the Caps had accomplished — and how they did it.
''When you look at their hockey club, they play a strong physical game,'' Martin said. ''You've got to really play hard to beat them.''
Material from wire services, team Web sites and broadcast media was used in this report.