There are two games left in the regular season for the Washington Capitals, but no matter what happens over the next three days, Washington is in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 13th consecutive year.
"This is so exciting," said rookie goaltender Jim Carey, who anchored the Caps' 5-1, playoff-clinching victory against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night. "You can finally go home at night and sleep, knowing you're in the playoffs.
"I can't tell you how many times I've been up thinking about it or talking to buddies and family and saying, 'Yeah, I think we're in, we're making a good shot at it.'
"But it's in stone now; we're in and now it's anybody's game."
Washington plays Florida in Miami today and Pittsburgh at USAir Arena on Tuesday.
"We're not finished," said Caps coach Jim Schoenfeld. "We feel it's very important for us to keep winning, especially these last two games, and see how high we can finish going into the playoffs."
The Caps are in the hunt primarily because Carey, 20, has taken them on a magic ride, inspiring solid teamwork in front of him and, surprisingly, offensive production.
As Washington prepares for the playoffs, its is doing it with a goaltender it trusts, the fifth-best defense in the league and a player in Peter Bondra, who leads all NHL goal-scorers with 32.
When Carey arrived for his first game March 2, the Caps were 3-10-5, and only the Ottawa Senators had a worse record.
But Carey sparked a seven-game unbeaten streak and a 13-2-2 run.
But there was a rough patch in which he went 1-4 and sat out a game at Quebec before taking off on his latest 4-1 run. Now his goals-against average of 2.144 leads the league, just ahead of Buffalo's Dominik Hasek (2.148).
Even so, during this latest run, Carey has at times looked shaky. He was pulled from his last loss -- after giving up three goals to the New York Rangers in the first period of a 5-4 defeat.
"I needed a game like this to get things back on a roll and they [his teammates) needed a game like this," Carey said after Friday's victory. "We worked hand in hand. You know they kept the shots down and got the goals when they had to, and I made the saves when I had to. Everything worked."
Indeed. Schoenfeld was pleased with nearly everything he saw Friday, when Joe Juneau, Keith Jones, Miller, Steve Konowalchuk and Bondra all scored. His overall team defense was solid and Carey made 19 saves.
Washington also was delighted with the debut of Igor Ulanov, the 6-foot-1 defenseman acquired from the Winnipeg Jets just before the April 7 trade deadline. Ulanov is back from a foot injury just in time to step in for the injured Mark Tinordi.
For the second year in a row, Caps general manager David Poile has made two astute trades down the stretch.
A year ago, he picked up defensemen Jim Johnson and Joe Reekie. They have become integral in the Caps' redesigned stay-at-home defense. This year it is Ulanov and center Mike Eagles, who is fitting in nicely on the Caps' "codger line" that features veterans Dale Hunter, Kelly Miller and Dave Poulin.
Opponent: Florida Panthers
Site: Miami Arena
Time: 3 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 45/WMAL (630 AM)
Outlook: The Panthers (18-22-5) are still alive for the playoffs but are 4-6-1 in their past 11 games. Washington (21-18-7) has
clinched a playoff spot but is playing for position in the final Eastern Conference standings. The Caps are 2-1 against the Panthers this season. D Mark Tinordi (sprained knee) is out. Florida D Robert Svehla (sprained rotator cuff) and G Mark Fitzpatrick (recurring back spasms) are day-to-day and D Keith Brown (knee surgery) is out.