PHILADELPHIA -- This was supposed to be the season when the Washington Capitals crashed to the bottom of the Patrick Division. Eight straight playoff appearances left them spent, and the loss of free-agent defenseman Scott Stevens created a gaping hole on the blue line.
But last night, in the hothouse of the Spectrum, the Capitals strode boldly into the National Hockey League playoffs, beating the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-0.
"People counted us out when this season began," John Druce said. "But you shouldn't count any team out. When we had to, we played well. When the pressure was on, we won."
In their most important game of the season, the Capitals received a perfect performance. Goals by Kevin Hatcher, Druce and Mike Ridley singed the Flyers, and goaltender Don Beaupre recorded a 21-save shutout.
The victory left Washington with a 36-35-7 record and 79 points, good for a third-place tie with the New Jersey Devils in the Patrick Division. The Flyers, bounced from the playoffs by the Capitals for the second straight year, are glued to fifth place with 75 points.
The Capitals and Devils will meet tomorrow night at the Capital Centre, and up for grabs will be third place and a probable first-round playoff pairing against the New York Rangers. The fourth-place finisher will meet the division champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
"We finished strong last year and finished strong again this year," Druce said. "It takes time to learn a system. But once we learned it, we were fine."
Just getting into the playoffs was a grand accomplishment for the Capitals in 1991. A month ago, they were in fifth place, six points out of fourth.
"Things looked grim for us back then," Beaupre said. "It seemed like we had an awful lot of ground to make up. We started to win, but we couldn't get any closer. But we kept plugging away, and plugging away. And, finally, we got there."
The Capitals used their speed to dump the Flyers, a plodding, unspectacular team that faces massive reconstruction. Philadelphia starting goaltender Pete Peeters was sidelined midway through the first period with a strained knee, and backup Ken Wregget performed capably.
But it did not matter who was in the net for the Flyers. The Capitals could not be stopped offensively. Defensively, Washington smothered the Flyers and received a break when Mike Ricci's goal with 17 minutes, 6 seconds left was disallowed because he punched the puck into the net.
Washington's goals were clean and decisive.
Hatcher scored his 24th goal of the season with 6:35 left in the second period, taking a pass from Druce and putting the puck in the top right-hand corner of the Flyers cage. Druce's 22nd goal of the season with 7:57 left in the third period came after a breakaway pass from Ridley. Ridley finished off the Flyers with an empty-net goal with 46 seconds left.
"It's just a great feeling to get in the playoffs," Washington coach Terry Murray said. "There were some times that we wondered if we would get in."
But the Capitals are on a late-season 7-3-1 rush, reaching a peak before the playoffs.
"Going into this season, we felt we had a good opportunity to be a .500 team," Murray said. "We started a lot of young players, and we knew they would improve. Now, we've got some momentum going into the playoffs."
Counted out in October, the Capitals remain alive in the run for the Stanley Cup.
Washington 0 1 2 -- 3
Philadelphia 0 0 0 -- 0
First period--None. Penalties--Langway, Was (hooking), 1:54; Carkner, Phi (cross-checking), 20:00.
Second period--1, Washington, Hatcher 24 (Druce, Langway), 13:25. Penalties--May, Was (unsportsmanlike conduct), 10:34; Murphy, Phi (unsportsmanlike conduct), 10:34.
Third period--2, Washington, Druce 22 (Ridley, Langway), 12:03. 3, Washington, Ridley 22, 19:14 (sh-en). Penalties--Druce, Was (holding), 4:20; Chychrun, Phi (cross-checking), 6:56; Ridley, Was (high-sticking), 8:01; Samuelsson, Phi (roughing), 8:01; Khristich, Was (roughing), 17:01; Tocchet, Phi, double minor (roughing), 17:01; Druce, Was (hooking), 18:20.
Shots on goal--Washington 8-12-7--27. Philadelphia 7-7-7--21. Power-play opportunities--Washington 0 of 3; Philadelphia 0 of 3. Goalies--Washington, Beaupre, 19-17-3 (21 shots-21 saves). Philadelphia, Peeters (2-2), Wregget, 10-14-2 (8:24 first, 24-22). A--17,382. Referee--Kerry Fraser. Linesmen--Kevin Collins, Pat Dapuzzo.