As the Washington Capitals once again climbed the league standings, talk of winning the Presidents’ Trophy for a second straight year never came up. The goal was to win the Metropolitan Division, not the piece of hardware honoring the NHL’s best record, and after the team clinched both with its 2-0 win over the New York Rangers on Wednesday night, the trophy remained an afterthought.
“We didn’t mention it,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “All I said was, ‘Good work by us.’ Then we talked about winning. We said we wanted to win the Metro, and we did.”
The Capitals are now assured of the top seed in the Eastern Conference and will have home ice throughout the playoffs. That was of particular importance to the Capitals’ Stanley Cup chances this season, given the NHL’s playoff format and the imbalance in strength between the East’s Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions.
As the No. 1 seed, the Capitals will now face the East’s second wild-card team — likely either the Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins or Toronto Maple Leafs — in the first round, and Washington will avoid an opening series with either the rival Pittsburgh Penguins or the Columbus Blue Jackets, the teams boasting the second and fourth-best records in the league entering Thursday night. In the competitive Metropolitan, winning the division and finishing with the NHL’s best record went hand-in-hand.
“We knew what was going on, but it was more about the playoff situation,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “You obviously want to not play either Pittsburgh or Columbus in the first round, but in the end it doesn’t matter. You got to go through good teams, and hopefully this just gives us a little bit more of an advantage.”
Washington entered Wednesday night’s game needing just one point to clinch the league’s best record, and the Capitals had the benefit of facing a Rangers team that didn’t play six of its regulars, including forward Mats Zuccarello and defenseman Ryan McDonagh. But Washington played the night before and this was the team’s first game back in Verizon Center after a season-long five game trip that spanned four time zones.
The game resembled a preseason contest at times. It was scoreless late in the second period when Alex Ovechkin let loose from his sweet spot in the left faceoff circle on a power play. The goal was originally credited to Ovechkin, but it was later changed after it was determined the puck bounced off Justin Williams’s leg. Washington’s man-advantage has scored nine power-play goals in the past seven games.
On a two-on-one rush 5:42 into the third period, Evgeni Kuznetsov beat Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to extend Washington’s lead. Holtby made 24 saves for his league-leading ninth shutout.
“We don’t care about that,” Kuznetsov said of the Presidents’ Trophy. “Maybe somewhere in the head for sure we think about that, but we never talk about it. If some guys going to say they don’t care, they’re lying. It’s always nice to win something.”
There’s just two games left, but having secured the top playoff position, the Capitals have the opportunity to rest some players before the postseason next week. Defenseman John Carlson has missed the past two games with an undisclosed lower-body that’s not considered serious, and Trotz said other players with bumps and bruises might also get a break.
That’s a luxury Washington has earned by again being the league’s best regular-season team. But the Capitals have already turned their attention to a larger goal. This is the third time the team has won the Presidents’ Trophy since 2010, but Washington has yet to reach the conference finals in that span.
“It means we’re best team in the season,” Ovechkin said. “But the most important season is coming soon. I think we in the right way. I think everybody focusing, everybody playing the right direction. You can see we play solid games against Columbus, Toronto and the Rangers. Maybe we’re going to see them in the future, but for us we just have to continue to play the way we played today in those games.”