WASHINGTON – Stephen Weiss has waited a long time to make the playoffs, longer than every active NHL player except one. Now that he’s finally made it, he doesn’t care that he got there after a loss.
Alex Ovechkin fully expected to be in the playoffs. The fact that it took until the waning days of the regular season to earn a spot is more of a cause for relief than celebration.
Weiss and the Florida Panthers ended one of the longest playoff droughts in major North American sports Thursday night, backing into a berth despite a 4-2 loss to Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, who overcame an injury to goaltender Michal Neuvirth to also earn a post-season bid and complete the eight-team field for the Eastern Conference.
“It’s been a long 10 years,” said Weiss, who has been with the Panthers since he was drafted No. 4 overall as a teenager in 2001. “You wonder if you’re doing the right thing. At the end of the day, it was worth staying.”
Both teams qualified after the Buffalo Sabres were eliminated with a 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, a game that ended at roughly the same time. It led to a rare scene in which both Verizon Center locker rooms had something to celebrate, although the feelings on both sides were a bit tempered because the Panthers had just lost a game and the Capitals were ruminating on a season during which they fired their coach and vastly underperformed.
“This year it was kind of a struggling season,” said Ovechkin, who scored his 37th goal but will finish the regular season with a career-low in points. “Nobody knows who’s going to be in playoffs, us or Buffalo. Buffalo was fighting a lot and today when we see the score sheet—Philly help us a lot and give us a break.”
Still to be determined is whether Florida will take the Southeast Division crown from four-time defending champion Washington. The Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years, but they also will win their first division title in franchise history if they gain at least a point at home against Carolina or if the Capitals lose to the New York Rangers on Saturday, the final day of the regular season.
Either way, the Panthers will play their first playoff game since 2000. Only six franchises from the four major U.S. sports leagues have gone longer without a post-season appearance: the Buffalo Bills (NFL), Baltimore Orioles (MLB), Toronto Blue Jays (MLB), Kansas City Royals (MLB), Washington Nationals (MLB) and Pittsburgh Pirates (MLB).
And Weiss, who just turned 29, will end his dubious run of a career without playoff hockey. Only former Florida teammate Jay Bouwmeester, now with Calgary, has been in more NHL regular-season games without a post-season appearance.
“It’s been tough,” Weiss said. “You go home early in the summer and you wonder if you’re doing the right thing for yourself, for your career. You want to be loyal, but at the same time you only get so many years to play, and you want to try and play playoff hockey and win Stanley Cups. I’m excited to get my first taste.”
Florida enters the post-season despite dropping five straight and eight of its last nine, relying heavily on the losing in overtime and shootouts to gain standings points. The Panthers have 18 overtime and shootout losses, tying an NHL record.
“Sometimes you have to take a look at the big picture,” Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. “And overall the big picture has been a hard-fought and enjoyable year.”
In a wacky game that included three goalie changes in a 6-minute stretch in the second period, the Capitals raced to a 3-0 lead with goals from Jay Beagle, Ovechkin and Brooks Laich. Of significant concern for Washington is the injury to Neuvirth, leaving Braden Holtby as the only healthy netminder on the roster.
Neuvirth was hurt in the second period, with the Capitals leading 1-0, when Panthers left wing Marco Strum stumbled in front of the Capitals net and fell on the goalie’s left leg. Neuvirth couldn’t put any weight on his left skate as teammates Ovechkin and Karl Alzner helped him to the bench.
With Tomas Vokoun out indefinitely with a groin injury, the Capitals were forced to go with youngster Holtby, playing only his sixth game of the season. Coach Dale Hunter would only say afterward that Neuvirth is “day-to-day.”
There was also goalie drama for Florida. After Washington’s third goal, Dineen replaced Jose Theodore for Scott Clemmensen and then went back to Theodore just 91 seconds later.
“He’s not getting off the hook. He’s been my go-to guy, and he’s got to go get it done,” Dineen said. “More than anything, I wanted to have a quick little chat with him on the bench and then send his butt back in there.”
Mikael Samuelson and Ed Jovanovski scored to start the comeback that fell short for the Panthers, and Alexander Semin scored an insurance goal for the Capitals with 1:02 left in the game.
Notes: The Capitals shut out the Panthers in the teams’ two previous meetings in Washington this season. … The only season in which the Panthers have won a playoff series was 1995-96, when they went to the Stanley Cup finals and were swept by Colorado.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP