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May 29, 2024

Capitals return to Stanley Cup playoffs by beating Flyers

PHILADELPHIA — For the Washington Capitals, it all came down to Game 82. Six-plus months of wins, losses, triumph and pain, with the team at times looking like a surefire playoff squad and at others appearing in line for another top-10 draft pick, boiled down to the final game.

The last time Washington’s postseason fate was determined in the 82nd game of the season was in 2008, the first time the Capitals made the Stanley Cup playoffs in the Alex Ovechkin era. Ten years later, they were champions for the first time. Six years after that, trying to make the playoffs — and give the core of this veteran team what might be its final appearance in the postseason — Washington faced a must-win matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center.

Two points, whether earned in regulation, overtime or a shootout, were all the Capitals needed to secure the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia needed to win in regulation — and get help from the Detroit Red Wings in Montreal — to stay alive.

The Capitals got what they needed. Washington emerged victorious, 2-1, thanks to an empty-net goal by T.J. Oshie with three minutes left. Goaltender Charlie Lindgren, who started for the second time in as many nights and for the third time in four days, made 27 saves to lift Washington back into the postseason. Samuel Ersson stopped 16 shots for the Flyers.

After missing out last season, the Capitals (40-31-11, 91 points) will return to the playoffs and face the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers in the first round. Detroit (41-32-9, 91 points) scored with five seconds left in regulation and went on to beat Montreal, 5-4, in a shootout, but the Capitals got the nod on the regulation wins tiebreaker (32 to 27).

“I don’t think I actually conceptualized this moment of us being and reaching our goal to get back into the Stanley Cup playoffs. When it happens, you’re a little bit taken aback,” Coach Spencer Carbery said. “Just proud — really, really proud of the group. Today was, once again, emblematic of what this group has done all year long. On a back-to-back, you could tell we were completely out of gas. We were fighting for every shift, just to take strides, just to make sure pucks got out.

“We had a good conversation between the second and third about what we were going to need to do, what was going to be required in that third period. I thought the guys dug in and did an excellent job in that third period and found a way. We found a way to get into the Stanley Cup playoffs.”

Before the game, Carbery implored his team to start on the front foot and play without fear, and Washington did as he asked in the opening minutes. Oshie rang a wrist shot off the post just 15 seconds in, and the Capitals looked to be in control.

Fittingly for the way this season has gone, Game 82 wasn’t without its quirks. Midway through the first period, a shot from Philadelphia’s Joel Farabee deflected into the air after a save by Lindgren. The officials lost sight of the puck and blew the whistle, but when the puck finally landed, it bounced off Farabee, then the stick of Capitals winger Tom Wilson and into the net. After an eight-minute review, as referees Kelly Sutherland and Eric Furlatt conferred with the NHL’s situation room in Toronto, it was ruled no goal — giving the Capitals a significant boost.

Philadelphia, spurred on by an incensed crowd, began to push back. It took the Capitals until 18:08 to get the puck past Ersson, and it was an odd one: Ovechkin deflected a point shot from defenseman Dylan McIlrath with the shaft of his stick, and the puck bounced off the ice and over Ersson’s shoulder.

Ovechkin’s explosive celebration, flinging himself into the glass before turning and pointing to McIlrath, underscored just how much a return to the postseason means to the 38-year-old, who scored his 853rd regular season goal.

“For us as a group, we stick together and it doesn’t matter what. It was a tough year, tough season — injuries, missing different guys, [players] from Hershey come up and they play unbelievable,” Ovechkin said. “Today D-Mac got a huge assist on the goal, and we play hard. We’re going to do something special this year. It’s only one step.”

As the Flyers built momentum, taking advantage of their rest advantage while Washington was on the second night of a back-to-back, it was unsurprising when a deflection by Erik Johnson tied the score with 7:31 remaining in the second period. It was only unsurprising that the Flyers didn’t manage to take the lead, given the high-quality chances that Lindgren had to fight off.

Much of the third period was an exercise in staying afloat. Philadelphia had more energy, more life and what felt like more hope, and Washington hung on for dear life. The score remained tied — a tight-checking, playoff-style showing befitting the stakes — well into the final minutes.

The point earned by the Red Wings for reaching overtime in Montreal eliminated the Flyers from playoff contention with just over three minutes remaining in Philadelphia, but Flyers Coach John Tortorella nonetheless pulled Ersson for an extra attacker. Moments later, Oshie fired the puck into the vacated net to give Washington the lead.

Though the Capitals had discussed the possibility of Philadelphia pulling its goalie in a tie game, Oshie didn’t realize the net was empty until he was bearing down on it.

“Skating down the ice, I didn’t even know the goalie was out until it looked like [Garnet Hathaway] was trying to block a shot there,” he said. “It felt good. It’s such a good game; it’s kind of unfortunate that that’s the way it has to end. They obviously needed a regulation win, so it’s understandable. That was a tough battle.”

After Oshie’s goal, Tortorella again pulled Ersson, forcing the Capitals to defend a six-on-five advantage for the Flyers while clinging to a one-goal lead. There was no other way, in a season in which Washington won 19 one-goal games before Tuesday’s final matchup, that it could end. The Capitals held on, doing just enough to run out the clock and return to the playoffs.

“It means a lot,” Oshie said. “Once you win one time, the regular season just doesn’t have as much meaning as a playoff game. To get back there is going to be super special. Definitely won’t take it for granted. The boys will be ready to rock.”

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