Washington Capitals playoff watch 2012: The stretch run for the postseason

Washington clinched a 5th straight playoff appearance on Thursday night.

Thursday's game: Washington Capitals 4, Florida Panthers 2

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 postseason bid to complete the eight-team field for the Eastern Conference.

Both teams qualified after Buffalo lost 2-1 at Philadelphia, eliminating the Sabres.

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. (AP)

The playoff position battle

The Capitals are in, but their first-round opponent is still very much undetermined. In fact, it probably won't be settled until Saturday evening. Depending on the way things fall on the season's final day, the Capitals could either finish in 3rd, 7th or 8th in the Eastern Conference.

That means that their potential playoff opponents include the New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, depending on where they finish.

Washington can still win the Southeast Division if they beat the Rangers on Saturday and Florida loses in regulation to the Carolina Hurricanes. If that happens, the Caps will play New Jersey in the first round. However, the Panthers control their own destiny; if they earn one point against Carolina, they clinch the division.

The Capitals would finish in 7th place and play Boston in the first round if they win on Saturday and the Ottawa Senators lose in regulation to New Jersey. If Ottawa earns a point, though, they clinch 7th and send the Capitals to Manhattan to take on the top-seeded Rangers.

Around the Eastern Conference

A look at how the other teams the Capitals are jockeying for playoff position did on Thursday.

Philadelphia Flyers 2, Buffalo Sabres 1 - Matt Read and Marc-Andre Bourdon scored to lead Philadelphia past Buffalo, eliminating the Sabres from postseason 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. (AP)

Boston Bruins 3, Ottawa Senators 1 - 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. (AP)

Eastern Conference Standings

Rank Team GP W L OTL PTS 3 X - Florida* 81 37 26 18 92 4 X - Pittsburgh 81 50 25 6 106 5 X - Philadelphia 81 47 25 9 103 6 X - New Jersey 81 47 28 6 100 7 X - Ottawa 81 41 30 10 92 8 X - Washington 81 41 32 8 90

{ }* - Florida earns the #3 spot in the conference by virtue of leading the Southeast Division. The top eight teams make the playoffs. X - clinched playoff spot.

Capitals remaining schedule

April 7 - at New York Rangers, 6:30 p.m.

This week's schedule

Saturday - Ottawa Senators at New Jersey Devils, 3 p.m.
Saturday - Buffalo Sabres at Boston Bruins, 4 p.m.
Saturday - Washington Capitals at New York Rangers, 6:30 p.m.
Saturday - Carolina Hurricanes at Florida Panthers, 7:30 p.m.