A flurry of short-handed goals in their 81st game not only helped the Boston Bruins lock up a postseason spot, but it also guaranteed they'll avoid the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the first round.
In fact, Boston has already snared the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, rendering Sunday afternoon's regular-season finale at Washington a mere tuneup for both clubs.
Washington's explosive offense is the main reason the Capitals (54-15-12) will enter the playoffs as the East's top seed -- the same spot the Bruins held last spring.
But until Saturday, there was doubt about whether Boston (38-30-13) would even return to the postseason. The Bruins dealt with injuries to several key players and they remain without top center Marc Savard and defensemen Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Mark Stuart, but they clinched a playoff spot with a 4-2 win over Carolina on Saturday.
"We knew it was going to be a dogfight to the end," forward Blake Wheeler said. "We've had the mentality that it's been a playoff game pretty much here for the last few weeks. And I think we really thrived under that sort of mentality and been playing some pretty good hockey lately."
Boston has gone 3-0-1 in its last four games to clinch the berth. The Bruins have the league's worst offense and have gone 0 for 22 on the power play in their last seven games, but they've stayed afloat thanks to sharp defense and some timely scoring.
They took a 3-0 lead against the Hurricanes by scoring three short-handed goals on the same Carolina power play in the second period, a feat the Bruins said had never happened in NHL history.
Boston locked up the East's No. 6 spot later Saturday night when Montreal lost to Toronto. The Bruins will face New Jersey or Buffalo in the first round.
"People will remember us as a team for how we finish, not how we start," Bruins coach Claude Julien said.
That statement could be even more true for the Capitals, who will be disappointed if they don't claim the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
"We just wait for the big things coming," star forward Alex Ovechkin said.
Washington, which is 27-3-6 since Jan. 13, has accomplished plenty of big things already this season. A win over the Bruins would give the Capitals a four-game season-series sweep and a club-record 31st home victory.
Ovechkin is challenging for both the goals and points titles, while goalie Jose Theodore has gone a franchise-record 23 straight games without a regulation loss. He made 29 saves in a 5-2 win over Atlanta on Friday.
The Capitals simply want to keep the momentum going, something they didn't do at the end of the 2008-09 season. They lost the finale 7-4 at Florida, then lost their first two playoff games to the New York Rangers.
"I think people talk too much about that last game last year and it leading into the playoffs," forward Brooks Laich said. "... If we win (Sunday), if we lose (Sunday), we don't approach the first game of the playoffs any different."
If Tuukka Rask starts for Boston, the game will feature the NHL's most productive offense against the league leader in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931).
The Capitals beat Rask 3-2 in overtime on Monday after Tim Thomas was in net for the Bruins' first two games against Washington, both 4-1 defeats. Theodore, meanwhile, is 7-0-1 with a 1.87 GAA against the Bruins since the NHL lockout.