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Panthers, Caps can relax

WASHINGTON -- Stephen Weiss has waited a long time to make the playoffs, longer than every active NHL player except one. Now that he's finally made it, he doesn't care that he got there after a loss.

Alex Ovechkin fully expected to be in the playoffs. The fact that it took until the waning days of the regular season to earn a spot is more of a cause for relief than celebration.

Weiss and the Florida Panthers ended one of the longest playoff droughts in major North American sports Thursday night, backing into a berth despite a 4-2 loss to Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, who overcame an injury to goaltender Michal Neuvirth to also earn a postseason bid and complete the eight-team field for the Eastern Conference.

"It's been a long 10 years," said Weiss, who has been with the Panthers since he was drafted No. 4 overall as a teenager in 2001. "You wonder if you're doing the right thing. At the end of the day, it was worth staying."

Both teams qualified after the Buffalo Sabres were eliminated with a 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, a game that ended at roughly the same time. It led to a rare scene in which both Verizon Center locker rooms had something to celebrate, although the feelings on both sides were a bit tempered because the Panthers had just lost a game and the Capitals were ruminating on a season during which they fired their coach and vastly underperformed.

"This year it was kind of a struggling season," said Ovechkin, who scored his 37th goal but will finish the regular season with a career-low in points. "Nobody knows who's going to be in playoffs, us or Buffalo. Buffalo was fighting a lot and today when we see the score sheet -- Philly help us a lot and give us a break."

Still to be determined is whether Florida will take the Southeast Division crown from four-time defending champion Washington. The Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years, but they also will win their first division title in franchise history if they gain at least a point at home against Carolina or if the Capitals lose to the New York Rangers on Saturday, the final day of the regular season.

Either way, the Panthers will play their first playoff game since 2000. Only six franchises from the four major U.S. sports leagues have gone longer without a postseason appearance, including the Buffalo Bills (NFL).

And Weiss will end his dubious run of a career without playoff hockey. Only former Florida teammate Jay Bouwmeester, now with Calgary, has been in more NHL regular-season games without a postseason appearance.

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