WASHINGTON - A year ago, at the culmination of a long trek up the standings, the Washington Capitals revelled when they finished atop the Southeast Division by winning their 82nd game, hugging and jumping and yelling with delight.
There was no such celebration to mark their second consecutive title. No, this time, Washington's players quietly shuffled off to the locker room, some with heads bowed, after clinching the division despite losing to the Buffalo Sabres 5-4 in overtime Friday night.
Maybe it's tough to get too excited after any defeat.
Maybe it's the way Washington lost, blowing three leads.
And maybe it's because these Capitals, led by Alex Ovechkin, have bigger things in mind.
"Before the season started, we said we were going to win, and we have one goal in mind," coach Bruce Boudreau said, "and we aren't there yet."
Which is why his players weren't nearly as excited as the sellout crowd of 18,277 was at the end of regulation, when the tied score meant Washington had earned at least one standings point. That was enough to give the Capitals a nine-point cushion ahead of second-place Carolina, which has four games left.
"You know what? It's an accomplishment, but it's an accomplishment we thought was going to happen," Boudreau said. "I mean, let's face it, Carolina would have to win 12 in a row and we'd have to lose all of our games. It would be a monumental collapse."
So the fans rose and applauded as "Washington Capitals, 2008-2009 Southeast Division Champions" was displayed on the above-ice video board and U2's "Beautiful Day" blared over the arena loudspeakers.
But the players drank water or caught their breath by leaning against the boards.
And then they went out and were beaten 1:51 into the extra session, when Sergei Fedorov - who scored two goals in the second period - turned over the puck, leading to Jason Pominville's breakaway goal.
"We've got to get smarter to be able to play better," Boudreau said.
Buffalo, meanwhile, celebrated as though it had won a playoff game, which in a way it had. The Sabres are in a mad dash to try to reach the post-season. They are 10th in the Eastern Conference, four points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers. Plus, the Sabres started a stretch run in which they'll play six games in nine days, including matchups against such top teams as Detroit, Boston and New Jersey.
"We needed this win," Pominville said. "We found a way."
Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Clarke MacArthur and Maxim Afinogenov also scored for Buffalo, and Tim Connolly had three assists. Ovechkin raised his NHL-leading goal total to 55, and Alexander Semin netted his 30th for Washington.
Unlike last season - when they were at the bottom of the league standings in late November - the Capitals built a big early lead in the division and clinched with four games to spare.
Asked before the game how much time he'd spent discussing the possibility of locking up the division, Boudreau offered a one-word answer: "None."
Washington led 1-0, then let Buffalo go up 2-1 on goals 48 seconds apart. Then the Capitals went back in front with goals 9 seconds apart by Semin and Fedorov.
After Buffalo tied the game, Fedorov's second goal put Washington ahead again, only to have Afinogenov make it 4-all with 9 1/2 minutes left in regulation. And then came Fedorov's miscue in overtime.
"If you battle that hard, you're going to get rewarded," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.
Notes: It was Capitals rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov's first NHL loss. ... The sellout crowd of 18,277 allowed the Capitals to break the franchise record for season attendance with one game left, reaching 723,715 to top the 710,990 of 2001-02.
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