Long before the final horn sounded, the sea of red-clad fans in Washington 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 Cristobal Huet, and the Capitals were finally on the way to the playoffs.
Make room in the postseason 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 postseason 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 last 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 will face Philadelphia or Ottawa in the first round.
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 defenseman (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."
Ovechkin didn't find the net last night, 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.
The Capitals were last in the Southeast Dec. 30, but their steady climb had already begun. 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, 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. They'll be seeded third in the East and will enjoy home-ice advantage in the first round, while the Hurricanes will be home for the postseason.
Canadiens 3, Maple Leafs 1 - Chris Higgins scored twice and Mark Streit had a goal and an assist as host Montreal beat Toronto to finish its schedule atop the Eastern Conference.
Montreal completed the regular season with a 47-25-10 record for 104 points, 2 more than Pittsburgh, which plays its final game today at Philadelphia. The Canadiens will claim their first conference title in 19 years if the Penguins, who also have 47 wins, lose to the Flyers.
Montreal will face the Bruins in the opening round of the playoffs.
Flames 7, Canucks 1 - Jarome Iginla scored his 50th goal of the season and added two assists as Calgary finished the regular season with a victory in Vancouver.
The Flames moved into sixth in the Western Conference, a point ahead of Colorado, which finishes against Minnesota today. The sixth seed will play the Wild in the first round of the playoffs, while the seventh-place team will to travel to San Jose in the opener.
Blues 3, Blue Jackets 0 - Keith Tkachuk scored the 498th and 499th goals of his career, and Manny Legace earned his 27th career shutout as St. Louis beat visiting Columbus. Tkachuk will have another chance to reach 500 today at Columbus.
Ducks 4, Kings 3 - Teemu Selanne scored two goals as visiting Anaheim beat Los Angeles.
Thrashers 4, Lightning 1 - Colby Armstrong scored the go-ahead goal late in the third period for host Atlanta.