Capitals celebrate berth 41624

PHILADELPHIA -- During the Washington Capitals’ celebratory group hug following their Stanley Cup Playoff berth-clinching 2-1 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, goalie Charlie Lindgren looked around at his teammates and could see the meaning of the accomplishment in their emotions.

“There was a lot of relief there, I’d say,” Lindgren said. “Obviously, you talk about the guys and their faces. They know how hard it’s been, and their faces said it all to me. Every single guy in this room has earned it. We’ve earned the chance to go play in the playoffs and, obviously, we’re going to have a tough test here with the Rangers, but we can’t wait for that opportunity.”

Yes, the New York Rangers, winners of the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top team in regular-season team -- helmed by their former coach Peter Laviolette -- will be the Capitals’ first-round opponent after they locked up the second wild card into playoffs from the Eastern Conference with their win Tuesday.

But the Capitals planned to push their thoughts on that series to the back of their minds for at least their train ride back to Washington so they could fully appreciate returning to the playoffs after failing to qualify last season for the first time since 2014.

Washington’s improbable run was capped in an improbable way. T.J. Oshie scored into an empty net to break a 1-1 tie with 3:00 remaining in the third period after the Flyers, who needed to win in regulation to keep their playoff hopes alive, pulled goalie Samuel Ersson 10 seconds earlier.

“Skating down the ice, I didn’t even know the goalie was out until it looked like [Flyers forward Garnet Hathaway] was trying to block a shot there,” Oshie said. “So, it felt good. It was such a great game. It’s kind of unfortunate that that’s the way it had to end, but they obviously needed a regulation win, so it’s understandable.”

Some wild finishes sent the Capitals on to the playoffs while ending the Red Wings and Flyers season

The Flyers were unaware that they had been eliminated from postseason contention moments earlier with the standings point the Detroit Red Wings earned by pushing their game against the Montreal Canadiens to overtime before winning 5-4 in a shootout. Oshie’s goal and Washington’s victory eliminated Detroit from playoff contention, too.

Although the Capitals (40-31-11) and Red Wings (41-32-9) each finished the regular season with 91 points, the Capitals clinched the last remaining playoff berth via tiebreaker (31 regulation wins versus 27).

“It was a crazy situation [until] tonight,” said captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored the Capitals’ first goal on a first-period deflection.  “… Detroit got a point, and [Philadelphia] still pulled the goalie. They didn't know that. But we'll take it. Thanks, Philly.”

Regardless of the help they received along the way, as Lindgren noted, the Capitals earned their way into the playoffs.

Washington fell seven points behind Detroit for the second wild card with six straight losses (0-5-1) from Jan. 20-Feb. 8. The Capitals were still five points out following the 2024 NHL Trade Deadline on March 8, after dealing forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov (Carolina Hurricanes) and Anthony Mantha (Vegas Golden Knights), and defenseman Joel Edmundson (Toronto Maple Leafs) for draft picks.

Lopsided losses to the Winnipeg Jets (3-0 on March 11) and Edmonton Oilers (7-2 on March 13) to begin a five-game road trip left them disheartened and three points out of the second wild card.

“It was not good,” Capitals coach Spencer Carbery said of the loss to Oilers. “But then this group, it didn’t get them [to think], ‘You know what? That’s it. Everybody’s counted us out, let’s just finish out the season.’”

Washington rebounded to win 2-1 against the Seattle Kraken on March 7 to begin a 6-1-0 surge from March 14-26 that put it two points ahead of Detroit for the second wild card.  Six consecutive losses (0-4-2) from March 28-April 7 dropped the Capitals out of a playoff spot again before they responded by winning four of their final five game.

That included three straight wins to close out the regular season, despite missing two of their top four defensemen with Nick Jensen and Rasmus Sandin each sidelined with an upper-body injury.

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Lindgren, who made 27 saves Tuesday. “There’s certainly been bumps in the road. There’s been adversity, but this team has answered the bell every single time.”

Carbery, who guided the Capitals to the playoffs in his first season as coach, acknowledged that some will point to their minus-37 goal differential or how other teams faltered during the playoff push and say, “We’ve got no business being here.”

The Capitals believe they belong, though, and aren’t content to simply get this far.

“I know this group isn’t just going to be content showing up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs,” Carbery said. “We want to go and put our best foot forward and show what we’re capable of doing as a group, play well in all these games right up to our standard. And if that’s good enough to win some games and knock off an opponent, we’ll find out.”