The Washington Capitals checked one goal off their to-do list already by clinching a playoff berth for the fifth straight year on Thursday night. There is still plenty left for them to pursue in the regular season finale, though, including a shot at the Southeast Division title, home-ice advantage in the first round and simply entering the postseason on a roll.
Those incentives should make for an intense matchup Saturday evening at the Eastern Conference leading New York Rangers, who have sewn up first place but are aiming to claim the Presidents’ Trophy with a victory.
In addition to everything else at stake, the meeting between the Capitals and Rangers at Madison Square Garden may also serve as a preview to a second straight first-round series between the two teams.
“We want to hopefully get some momentum because they could possibly be our first-round matchup,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “You don’t want to go into this game and be a little reluctant going in there and a little complacent. We’re going to go in, we’re going to try to win because we have a chance to clinch the division as well. . . . Even if we don’t, we’re hoping to get two points and get some momentum going into the first round.”
Coming off a decisive 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh, New York wants to enter the playoffs on a high note by finishing with the best record in the regular season. All signs point to all-star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist getting the start against Washington for one more tuneup as well.
“We’re just going to play the game. We have a lot of different things going on as far as our readiness for a lot of different teams, obviously, because it’s not decided,” Rangers Coach John Tortorella told reporters in New York on Friday. “We want to win that hockey game. It’s our last game before we really get going. I think there is a little bit of incentive there, so we want to win that hockey game, including me.”
All eight playoff teams are set in the East, but Saturday — the final day of the NHL regular season — will determine the seedings.
The Capitals (90 points) could still finish in third, seventh or eighth place, where they currently reside, and draw a first-round series against the New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins or Rangers, respectively.
To move up in the standings, Washington must beat the Rangers on Saturday, combined with a regulation loss by Florida or Ottawa. The Panthers (92 points) can clinch the Southeast Division crown with just one point against Carolina in their final contest, while the Senators (92 points) can secure the seventh spot with one point against New Jersey.
Should the Capitals fail to gain two points against New York, though, they’ll be guaranteed the third playoff series between the teams in the past four years. So one more win to close out the regular season is the first step.
“You always want to finish as high as you can, so it’s really important. We’re going to go out there and bust our tails again,” Coach Dale Hunter said. “Everybody plays better at home. We’re gonna battle. New York is a good team, and they’re battling for first overall, so it’s going to be one of these games again. It’s gonna be blocking shots and hitting and going at it hard.”
Winning a fifth straight division title would give the Capitals something much more valuable than another banner to hang in Verizon Center: home-ice advantage. Washington is 26-11-4 at home but 15-21-4 on the road this year.
As desirable as that may be, the Capitals know they can’t achieve the goal of home ice on their own. All they want to focus on is what they can control themselves.
“Home ice would be nice, but we’re in the position now where we need a little bit of help,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We’re just going to focus on ourselves. Whether it’s the Rangers, whether it’s Boston, whether it’s Jersey, we’ll find out. You can’t wish or hope for any of them. They’re all very good teams; we can only control what we can control.”
Capitals notes: Braden Holtby is expected to start in goal for Washington on Saturday and there was no further update on injured goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who is listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury. Dany Sabourin, a journeyman goaltender for Hershey of the American Hockey League, told the Patriot-News on Friday night that he had been recalled to back up Holtby in New York.. . .
Brouwer was given a maintenance day Friday while Mike Green also missed practice because of an illness.