WASHINGTON - The Florida Panthers ended one of the longest playoff droughts in major North American sports Thursday night despite a 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals, who also earned a post-season bid to complete the eight-team field for the Eastern Conference.
Both teams qualified after Buffalo lost 2-1 at Philadelphia, eliminating the Sabres.
Still to be determined is the winner of the Southeast Division. The Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time in 12 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.
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, Alex Ovechkin and Brooks Laich. Of significant concern for Washington is a left leg injury that sent Michal Neuvirth to the locker room, leaving Braden Holtby as the only healthy netminder on the roster.
Mikael Samuelson and Ed Jovanovski scored to start a comeback that fell short for the Panthers, who switched from Jose Theodore to Scott Clemmensen and back to Theodore in the second period.
Alexander Semin scored an insurance goal for the Capitals with 1:02 to play.
The Panthers haven't played a 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).
Florida enters the post-season despite dropping eight of its last nine, relying heavily on the losing in overtime and shootouts to gain standings points.
FLYERS 2, SABRES 1
PHILADELPHIA (AP)—Matt Read and Marc-Andre Bourdon scored to lead Philadelphia past Buffalo, eliminating the Sabres from post-season contention.
Read beat goalie Ryan Miller on a breakaway with 4:21 left in the game to end Buffalo's bid.
The Sabres needed to beat the Flyers to keep their faint playoff hopes alive heading into their final game of the season. Ville Leino scored for Buffalo.
PENGUINS 5, RANGERS 2
PITTSBURGH (AP)—Marc-Andre Fleury made 35 saves to tie the Pittsburgh franchise record for victories, and the Penguins beat New York to clinch home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang each had a goal and an assist for Pittsburgh, the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference for the fourth consecutive season. They will play Philadelphia in the first round.
Tyler Kennedy and Richard Park also scored to help the Penguins (50-25-6) reach 50 wins for the second time in franchise history. Fleury has 226 victories, matching Tom Barrasso's mark from 1988-2000.
Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov scored for the Rangers, who were playing for the first time since clinching the top seed in the conference.
PREDATORS 2, STARS 0
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Pekka Rinne made 28 saves for his fifth shutout of the season, Francis Bouillon scored at 4:28 of the third period, and Nashville beat Dallas to grab back control of its playoff slot with its third win in four games.
With the win and Detroit losing to New Jersey, Nashville moved back into fourth in the Western Conference, a point a head of the Red Wings. Now the Predators need only wrap up the regular season Saturday night at Colorado with a win to start the playoffs at home and finish ahead of Detroit for the first time.
Patric Hornqvist had an assist and clinched the win with a goal with 2 minutes left.
The Stars lost their fourth straight in being eliminated. The Stars came in ninth and needed at least a point, but the loss allowed Los Angeles and Phoenix to clinch berths.
Rinne was back in net for Nashville after sitting out Tuesday night in a shootout win against Minnesota, and he got his NHL-leading 43rd victory by stopping 12 shots in the third.
SHARKS 6, KINGS 5, SO
LOS ANGELES (AP)—Joe Pavelski scored the only shootout goal, and San Jose beat Los Angeles to pull even with the Kings atop the Pacific Division with two days left in the regular season.
Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Ryane Clowe each had a goal and an assist as the Sharks won a phenomenal game between California rivals featuring seven power-play goals, multiple fights and two rough goaltending performances. The game even had a bit of astonishing gamesmanship when Clowe got away with playing the puck from his seat on the San Jose bench late in the third period.
Both teams clinched playoff berths during the game when Dallas and Colorado lost elsewhere.
The Sharks and Kings will finish the regular season Saturday night at the Shark Tank. They are a point ahead of Phoenix, which has two games left.
Jason Demers and Marty Havlat also scored for San Jose. Justin Williams scored twice for Los Angeles and Alec Martinez, Dustin Brown and Jarret Stoll added goals.
BLUE JACKETS 5, AVALANCHE 2
DENVER (AP)—Cam Atkinson scored three goals, and Steve Mason stopped 35 shots, helping Columbus put an end to Colorado's post-season aspirations—and putting San Jose in the playoffs.
Rick Nash added two goals for Columbus. The Blue Jackets have won four of five, but are still guaranteed to finish with the worst record in the NHL.
David Jones and Paul Stastny scored for Colorado.
DEVILS 2, RED WINGS 1
DETROIT (AP)—Petr Sykora broke a tie with 8:40 left, Alexei Ponikarovsky also had a goal and Martin Brodeur made 23 saves in New Jersey's victory over Detroit.
Tomas Holmstrom scored for Detroit, fighting Central Division rivals Nashville and Chicago for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Jimmy Howard stopped 19 shots.
Sykora beat Howard from in front after taking a pass from Patrik Elias. It was Sykora's 20th goal.
The Red Wings were coming off a 3-2 shootout win in St. Louis on Wednesday night.
BRUINS 3, SENATORS 1
OTTAWA (AP)—Anton Khudobin stopped 44 shots in his Boston debut, leading the Bruins past Ottawa.
Greg Zanon, Benoit Pouliot and Milan Lucic scored for the Bruins. Jason Spezza scored for the Senators. Ben Bishop, who missed the past four games with a lower body injury, stopped 24 shots.
These teams will likely end up as first-round playoff opponents.
FLAMES 3, CANUCKS 2
CALGARY (AP)—Michael Cammalleri scored twice in the third period in Calgary's comeback victory over Vancouver.
Curtis Glencross also scored in the third period, and Miikka Kiprusoff stopped 32 shots for Calgary.
Alexandre Burrows and Jannik Hansen scored for Vancouver. The Canucks had their winning streak snapped at seven, and missed a chance to take a lead over the New York Rangers for the top spot in the overall standings.
MAPLE LEAFS 3, LIGHTNING 2, OT
TORONTO (AP)—Steven Stamkos scored his 59th goal of the season for Tampa Bay, but Dion Phaneuf scored in overtime for Toronto in the Maple Leafs' comeback victory over the Lightning.
Stamkos is trying to become the NHL's first 60-goal scorer since Washington's Alex Ovechkin had 65 in 2007-08, and just the second player to reach that mark in the last 15 years.
Tim Connolly and Jake Gardiner also scored for Toronto. Martin St. Louis added a goal for Tampa Bay.
HURRICANES 2, CANADIENS 1, SO
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)—Eric Staal scored in the shootout to lead Carolina past Montreal.
Chad LaRose scored a power-play goal, and Cam Ward made 30 saves before stopping the Canadiens cold in the tiebreaker to give the Hurricanes their second straight victory and first win in a shootout this season.
Blake Geoffrion scored, and Peter Budaj stopped 28 shots for the Canadiens. They were 0 for 7 on the power play before a shootout in which Ward stuffed Lars Eller and David Desharnais and former Hurricane Erik Cole rang the right post on his attempt. Staal ended it when he chipped a wrist shot over Budaj's glove.
ISLANDERS 5, JETS 4
UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP)—Michael Grabner scored his second go-ahead goal of the third period with just 46.8 seconds left, John Tavares helped set up two others to reach 50 assists this season, and the New York Islanders wrapped up their home schedule with a victory over Winnipeg.
Grabner, who had given the Islanders a short-lived 4-3 lead with a penalty-shot goal with 8:15 remaining, deflected a shot-pass from defenceman Travis Hamonic to finally put New York ahead for good.
Kyle Okposo scored twice, and Matt Moulson added a goal for New York.
Zach Bogosian, Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Andrew Ladd scored for Winnipeg.
WILD 2, BLACKHAWKS 1, SO
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP)—Cal Clutterbuck tied it on a tip-in with 3:12 left in regulation, and Devin Setoguchi had the lone shootout goal in Minnesota's victory over Chicago.
Josh Harding made 22 saves, allowing only Jamal Mayers' first-period goal. The Blackhawks had only two shots on goal in the last 25 minutes, one in the third.
DUCKS 3, OILERS 2, OT
EDMONTON (AP)—Ryan Getzlaf scored in overtime to lift Anaheim past Edmonton.
An Edmonton shot caromed off the boards and came all the way down the ice for Getzlaf's breakaway, and he beat goalie Devan Dubnyk through the legs 1:12 into extra time.
Andrew Cogliano and Bobby Ryan also scored for Anaheim. Sam Gagner and Jordan Eberle scored for Edmonton.