|Tomas Fleischmann leads the Panthers in scoring in his first season with the club, recording 61 points (27 goals) in 80 games.
WASHINGTON -- Tomas Fleischmann whiffed at his first chance and then was tripped as he deked, but he scored on the second try as he fell to ice in the first period April 5, 2008.
That was the first goal in a 3-1 victory for the Washington Capitals against the Florida Panthers. It was a victory that capped an incredible rally to first place and a playoff berth, and it began a Southeast Division dynasty.
Fleischmann is back in Washington on the fourth anniversary of that night, but he now is a member of the Panthers, and they are here to end that dynasty.
Should the Panthers collect at least one point Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US), a Southeast Division championship banner will not rise at Verizon Center for a fifth consecutive year -- there will be one at BankAtlantic Center next season, instead.
"It is kind of the same feeling," Fleischmann said. "You just want to clinch the division and make the playoffs. It is exactly the same feeling, and we'll see how it goes tonight. We are excited. We were excited about it last game, but the outcome didn't come like we wanted. Now we get another crack at it tonight."
Fleischmann and the Panthers had a chance to clinch the division Tuesday, but blew a 3-0 lead against Winnipeg and lost 5-4 in overtime. Florida should have clinched its first division title in franchise history and first playoff berth by now, but the Panthers have lost seven of their past eight games -- including six times to teams that will not be in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
They have managed to collect a point in five of those seven losses to remain in a position of strength -- the only way Florida doesn't make the playoffs is if Washington and Buffalo each win twice to close the season and the Panthers lose their final two games in regulation.
"I've liked our team all year long," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "Sometimes it is an emotional roller coaster. It really is up and down, and it is no different in their locker room or no different in Chicago when they lost nine in a row or in Detroit -- this happens in sports. It is how you react to it, and I've always liked our group.
"One thing I've let them know in the last day is what a pleasure it has been to come to the rink every day, and sometimes it isn't always fun and it isn't an enjoyable experience, but the opportunity to get together and sort things out -- that's where the real satisfaction comes from."
This is one of the most important regular-season games in franchise history for the Panthers, but it also is of great importance to the Capitals, who are more worried about making the playoffs than prolonging their streak of division titles. Washington and Buffalo are tied with 88 points, but the Capitals will hold the tiebreaker based on more regulation/overtime wins, so they just need to collect the same amount of points in the final two games as the Sabres do.
Buffalo is in Philadelphia on Thursday and will be at Boston on Saturday, but the Bruins have nothing left to play for, having already clinched the No. 2 seed. The Capitals will be in New York on Saturday to face the Rangers, who have the No. 1 seed sealed but could be playing for the Presidents’ Trophy.
Washington could have been in position to clinch a playoff berth Thursday regardless of the outcome at Wells Fargo Center, but the Capitals also blew a lead -- they were ahead 2-0 -- against the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 4-2 defeat two days ago.
"It is like a playoff game. You want to approach it as that, and we've got the horses to do it," Capitals forward Jason Chimera said. "We've just got to go out and play our game and we'll be fine. If you're not ready for these moments as a player, you're never going to be ready. It is going to be fun in there tonight, and it is a good atmosphere."
It was an electric atmosphere at Verizon Center four years ago. The party atmosphere and sea of red-clad fans the building became known for in subsequent seasons was in its infancy in April 2008.
There will only be five players in Washington sweaters on the ice Thursday who played in that game -- Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Brooks Laich. Jeff Schultz and John Erskine were there four years ago as well, but are expected to be healthy scratches.
This was not how this season was supposed to end for the Capitals. They needed until April 5 last season to clinch the division, but were safely in the postseason at that point.
This was one of the best teams in the League on paper at the season's onset, but it has not turned out that way and the Capitals are back where they started four years ago -- playing an April game at Verizon Center against the Panthers with their postseason chances at stake.
"It feels like the Superman ride at Six Flags [in Largo, Md.]," Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said when asked about the 2011-12 season. "We started off climbing right to the top and feeling great, and then just riding the wave the rest of the way. It's been up and down. It has been very, very frustrating for a team that all of us had such high expectations for.
"We can still fulfill those, but we expected a lot more of ourselves in the regular season. That is too bad, and you don't like people being disappointed in you, but at the same time you fight through those 80 games so far to get to this point and this is when it really matters. This is the real test. You just put that all behind you and it doesn't really matter until what happens in the playoffs."
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer