WASHINGTON (CBSDC) — Brooks Laich may have cemented a post-season career as a psychic this week.
“We’re making the playoffs,” Laich told the Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday morning. “We’re not talking worst case scenario, we’re making the playoffs.”
As it turns out, his peek into the crystal ball was spot on.
Laich scored a goal of his own to help the Washington Capitals clinch their fifth straight playoff berth by defeating the Florida Panthers 4-2. The win keeps the Caps in contention to win their fifth straight Southeast Division crown.
“Well, the season’s actually just starting now,” Laich said following the win. “This was a goal at the start – to get into the playoffs. We’ve achieved it now. As hockey players, this is really when it gets fun. It’s been up and down, but we’ve really been able to maintain a sort of level head throughout it, and we’re into the playoffs. That’s where we want to be.”
GAME PHOTOS: CAPS BEAT PANTHERS, CLINCH PLAYOFF SPOT
It wasn’t easy though as the Caps almost blew a 3-0 lead for the second time at home in less than two weeks. It also didn’t help that starting goaltender Michal Neuvirth left 5:39 into the second period when former Capital Marco Sturm fell on him.
Officially, Neuvirth, who stopped all 13 shots on goal before he left, is listed as day-to-day with a lower body injury. However, the injury didn’t look good as he was helped to the locker room and was unable to return. Braden Holtby came in relief and stopped 12 of 14 shots, with huge saves in the third period to win it for the Caps.
“He was a rock back there when we needed him tonight,” Laich said.
It took Holtby a little bit to feel his way into the game, but he stopped five of the six shots he saw in the third.
“I don’t really ever feel 100 percent comfortable like you do when you play, when you know you’re starting,” Holtby said. “You basically just run off adrenaline and just battle as hard as you can. Your mindset of the technique and everything kind of go out the window. You just try and stop the puck, even if it’s not pretty.”
Capitals Head Coach Dale Hunter was also happy with his effort.
“It’s a tough spot, but I think anybody that played the game, always wants to be in that tough spot,” he said. “So, I think he relished it and then came out and did what he had to do to win.”
Forward Jay Beagle lit the lamp early, beating former Washington goalie Jose Theodore on a deflected Troy Brouwer shot.
The goal, Beagle’s fourth of the season, was part of a strong effort from the Caps’ fourth line. The line combined for one goal, one assist, six shots on goal, 14 hits and five blocked shots against the Panthers top line.
“I thought our team played very well,” Laich added. “I think that’s the identity of our team going forward – the shot-blocking, the tight defensive system, only taking one penalty and a lot of discipline there. That’s gonna be what’s gonna help win us game, and guys like Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, Troy Brouwer, Karl Alzner – I thought they did a great job against that top line and made it easy for the rest of us.”
Alzner and back up John Carlson combined for ten hits and seven blocked shots. Both were +1 on the night.
“They played well together,” Hunter said. “I thought the [defense] played very well tonight.”
In the second period Alex Ovechkin put in a Marcus Johansson rebound to push Washington’s advantage to two goals. It’s Ovechkin’s 37th of the season and first since March 25th. Exactly two minutes later Laich fired one past Theodore to extend the lead to three.
However, as was evidenced against Winnipeg last month, a three-goal lead isn’t safe when teams are desperate.
First, Mikael Samuelsson beat Braden Holtby with a high-wrister. Then Ed Jovanovski, just 42 seconds into the third, beat Holtby with a knuckle-puck deflection that floated right in the net.
The sense of dread and “here we go again” mentality was thick among the capacity Verizon Center crowd.
But a Capital collapse was not in the cards. Alexander Semin put the lead out of reach with just 1:02 left in the third when he beat Theodore to make it 4-2.
The Caps can either end up with the third, seventh or eighth seeds.
“Not everything’s going to go your way the entire year,” Laich said. “I came to camp expecting to be scoring winger and end up being an assignment center for most of the season. Things are going to change through the course of the season. You have to accept that. You accept the highs, you accept the lows. … We’re just a group of guys that enjoys playing together and we’ll ride this wave.”
The Caps end their season against the New York Rangers on Saturday in New York. If the Caps win and the Panthers lose against the Hurricanes on Saturday then the Caps will win the Southeast Division. In an interesting twist, the Rangers could be their first postseason opponents if they fall in the Garden this weekend.
“We want to hopefully get some momentum because they could possibly be our first-round match-up,” Caps forward Troy Brouwer said. “You don’t want to go into this game and be a little reluctant going in there and a little complacent. We’re going to go in, we’re going to try to win because we have a chance to clinch the division as well. We need a little bit of help in that aspect, but at the same point, we think it’s very possible for us. Even if we don’t, we’re hoping to get two points and get some momentum going into the first round.”
If Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun (groin) can’t go when the playoffs start, Braden Holtby will get the start and be the Caps fifth different playoff goalie in the last five seasons.
“I don’t want to look forward and do it too much,” Holtby said. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We have a game against New York coming up, and that’s what I’m focusing on right now. Every game counts right now for me.”
Listen here to what Dale Hunter, Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Braden Holtby and John Carlson had to say following the win.
1st 5:42 Beagle (4), Brouwer (15), Alzner (16)
2nd 7:49 Ovechkin (37), Johansson (31)
2nd 9:49 Laich (16), Aucoin (7), Hamrlik (9)
3rd 18:58 Semin (21), Laich (24), Orlov (16)
Dale Hunter Postgame Audio
Alex Ovechkin Postgame Audio
Brooks Laich Postgame Audio
Braden Holtby Postgame Audio
John Carlson Postgame Audio