The Caps were able to assure themselves a place among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference, thanks in part to New Jersey's 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers.
"We weren't picked to be in the playoffs and then, with our horrendous start, everyone thought we'd be buried," said Washington coach Jim Schoenfeld, whose team started 3-10-5 before rookie goaltender Jim Carey arrived and keyed a seven-game unbeaten streak.
"This is simply the result of the players' perseverance. We worked hard for each other and believed in what we were doing. There was a time when it would have been easy to stop believing that we were going to be here at this time in the season, but they pulled together and worked themselves to this point.
"Now we have to keep building."
Just where the Caps will wind up in the final standings is still uncertain with two games to play. Last night they stayed in sixth place, one point behind fifth-place New Jersey and two points behind fourth-place Boston, which lost, 4-1, to Pittsburgh.
The Hartford Whalers were eliminated from playoff contention with their 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Islanders increased the pressure on the New York Rangers by taking a 3-1 victory and leaving the door open for Florida and the Montreal Canadiens.
Washington could finish anywhere from fourth to eighth. Tomorrow at 3 p.m., the Caps play in Miami against the Panthers.
"You try all season to get into the playoffs," said Peter Bondra, who scored the last goal of the night and increased his league-leading goal production to 32. "Now we are in. This was the biggest game. The biggest. But it is the first level. Now we have to play for position in the playoffs. We go to Florida now and we will try to win. We should try for the best finish. We must keep playing defense and get some goals. I will try to get more goals, but the main thing is that team wins."
The lively crowd of 17,109 at USAir Arena may have wondered coming into this game what it was going to see.
At one end of the ice stood Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek, who came in with a 2.07 goals-against average, best in the NHL. At the other end stood rookie Jim Carey, who was right behind him with a 2.19 goals-against.
On this night, it would be Carey, decidedly on his game, who would come out the winner with 19 saves. He also retook the league goaltending lead, with a 2.144 goals-against to Hasek's 2.148.
Hasek faced 27 shots and was under pressure most of the night, as the Caps demonstrated some of the best forechecking of the season and kept the Sabres in their own end much of the time.
"Jimmy was terrific in goal," said forward Kelly Miller, who provided Washington with its third goal off assists from Mike Eagles and Dale Hunter. "When it was 3-1 in the third, he made some big saves for us. Hopefully, he'll keep playing like that for us and we'll keep playing like this for him.
"This is a great accomplishment for us, given how deep the hole was that we dug at the start of the season."
Washington's first goal came from Joe Juneau on the power play in the first period and Keith Jones and Miller scored in the second for a 3-1 lead. At 13:16 of the third, Steve Konowalchuk made it 4-1 and with 2:09 to play Bondra made it 5-1.
Buffalo's only goal came on a first-period power play at 12:25, when Pat LaFontaine found Alexander Mogilny open in the slot.
Caps fans got their first look at defenseman Igor Ulanov, who started in place of the injured Mark Tinordi. Tinordi has a second-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee and is not expected back for four to six weeks.
Ulanov, acquired from the Winnipeg Jets before the trading deadline, was playing his first game in five weeks, having been out with a broken bone in his foot.
Part of Tinordi's strength is his size (6 feet 4, 213 pounds) and his fearless use of his body to open up space for the Caps' forwards. Ulanov, like Tinordi, is big (6-1, 205) and can provide some of the strength the Caps will miss in Tinordi's absence. He demonstrated some of that last night.
Ulanov had one nervous moment, however, at the start of the second period when he slipped 46 seconds into the period while carrying the puck in the Caps' zone. Falling, he tried to clear the puck.
Unfortunately for Washington, the Sabres' Yuri Khmylev picked it up and slid it to Bob Sweeney for a point-blank shot on Carey, who was looking at three undefended Buffalo players, as Washington's Calle Johansson also had slipped on the ice.
But Carey came up with the big save.