With the win, Washington (42-32-8, 92 points) moved into seventh place in the Eastern Conference and set up a first-round matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. Game 1 at TD Garden likely will be played on Thursday.
Washington enters the postseason having won five of its final seven regular season games.
“For us it’s a confidence thing. Being able to beat the number one team in the conference going into the playoffs here gives us some confidence,” Troy Brouwer said. “I like the way our game is right now going into the playoffs.”
The Capitals have found success against Boston this season, going 3-1-0 including a pair of wins on the road, but the players insisted those records don’t matter at this stage of the season.
“It means nothing. Boston, they’re a different team in the playoffs,” former Bruin Dennis Wideman said. “We had success against them throughout the regular season, but I think you’re going to see a different team [when] we play them in the first round.”
Without knowing who among three potential playoff opponents they would face at the start at Madison Square Garden, the Capitals wasted no time in taking command of the contest. Thirty-two seconds into the game, Brooks Laich won a faceoff against Derek Stepan, teeing up Alex Ovechkin for a wicked wrist shot that seemed to catch Henrik Lundqvist (13 saves) off guard as it found its way into the net. Washington’s first shot of the game gave it a 1-0 lead.
The Capitals continued to push forward and made it 2-0 with 2 minutes 18 seconds gone in the first. Mathieu Perreault redirected a point shot by Roman Hamrlik on Washington’s second shot of the evening.
Spotted a two-goal edge before having to face many shots, Holtby made the necessary saves — including a few quality stops — to ensure the Rangers wouldn’t gain any momentum.
“That was huge, anytime you get a lead like that on Henrik Lundqvist, you have to make it count,” Holtby said of the early cushion. “You don’t see that very often and we took advantage of that today. The quick start was definitely a key.”
Despite squandering its first opportunity on the power play, Washington ended a five-game drought (0 for last 14) on the man advantage on its second attempt of the evening. With Ryan McDonagh in the box for firing the puck over the glass from the defensive zone, John Carlson’s point shot gave the Capitals a 3-0 lead 18:13 into the game.
By the time the first period came to a close, Washington had scored three goals on seven shots against Lundqvist, the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy. It was one of the most thorough first periods the Capitals have put together this season.
Early in the second, Nicklas Backstrom scored on a smooth snap shot — his first goal since returning to the lineup after missing 40 games because of a concussion — to put the Capitals ahead 4-0. From there, Washington focused on supporting Holtby and ensuring that the Rangers, who got on the board with a wrap-around tally by Brian Boyle in the second period, wouldn’t climb back in the contest.
After that, all that was left to be determined was seeding. Washington leapfrogged Ottawa, which lost 4-2 to New Jersey on Saturday afternoon, for seventh place, but was denied its fifth consecutive Southeast Division title and the No. 3 seed by Florida’s 4-1 win over Carolina, 4-1.
It might have not been the perfect contest for the Capitals — they were outshot 36-17 and their power play went 1 for 3 while giving up key short-handed chances — but it certainly doesn’t hurt to keep rolling into the postseason.
“I don’t know if it’s a statement win. It’s just we wanted to come in and play a good hockey game. That was it,” Brooks Laich said. “This time of year you don’t ever want to let anybody think that they can beat you. You certainly don’t want to have that losing feeling. So I don’t know if it’s a statement game. It’s just our team continuing to play well.”