WASHINGTON - Long before the final horn sounded, the sea of red-clad fans turned the arena into an earsplitting din of cheers for their team, "M-V-P!" chants for Alex Ovechkin, a chorus of "Bruuuuuuce" for their coach. Even "Hip, hip, Hu-et!" for the goaltender.
The owner responded by blowing a kiss to the crowd. After three painful, rebuilding seasons of consecutive last-place finishes, the Washington Capitals had a lot of pent-up celebrating to do.
When the clock hit 0:00, Ovechkin jumped into the arms of Cristobel Huet, and the Capitals were finally on the way to the playoffs.
Make room in the post-season for Ovechkin and the Capitals, who 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 and MVP candidate in hockey's showcase tournament for the first time - with a 3-1 victory over the Florida Panthers on Saturday night in their final regular-season game.
"There's a little bit of destiny in this team," said owner Ted Leonsis, who took part in the "red-out" by wearing a Capitals home jersey. "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."
Tomas Fleischmann, trade-deadline pickup Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin scored for the Capitals, whose seven-game winning streak is the franchise's longest in 15 years. Huet, another late-season acquisition, made 25 saves to win his ninth straight start.
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 55 assists).
"There was never a word of 'We couldn't' or 'We won't' or 'We can't,"' Boudreau said. "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."
Ovechkin didn't find the net Saturday, 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.
"Oh, yeah, this is one of my dreams," Ovechkin said. "Now we're there. It's only one step. Now we can think about playoff games."
The Capitals were last in the Southeast 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 in the conference at the halfway mark.
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 got off his shot while being tripped by goaltender Craig Anderson. The Panthers tied it in the second period with a second-effort shot from Kamil Kreps.
The Capitals retook the lead late in the second with a backhanded, pinpoint cross-ice pass from Semin that set up a breakaway for Fedorov. Semin made it 3-1 in the third.
"When you look at their hockey club, they play a strong physical game," Florida coach Jacques Martin said. "You've got to really play hard to beat them."
The division title is the fourth in Capitals history and first since 2000-01, and it helps vindicate the fire-sale-and-build-from-scratch philosophy dictated by Leonsis just before the 2004-05 lockout. The rebuilding began with the draft of Ovechkin as the No. 1 overall pick just before the shutdown.
"We've been telling people, 'Be patient and we'll wake up one morning and have a good team," general manager George McPhee said. "And I think that morning is tomorrow morning."
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.