Once they hit the ice at Scotiabank Arena, however, the Capitals looked lifeless in their first two round-robin games and quickly faced gaping holes in their lineup. Their offense dried up, and their defense wasn’t up to par. Their need to find an “extra gear” became a recurring theme during news conferences.
The Capitals still didn’t put together a full 60 minutes of quality hockey in their final round-robin game Sunday against the Boston Bruins, but Washington’s 2-1 win was a marked improvement from its previous two outings. The victory over the Presidents’ Trophy winners earned the Capitals the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and sets up a first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders beginning Wednesday.
“We all understand what playoff games mean and how we have to play,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Lots of guys [were on the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2018], and we know what it takes. It doesn’t matter how much time you have; you just have to do your job.”
After T.J. Oshie’s goal late in the first period opened the scoring for Washington, Tom Wilson provided some insurance 2:49 into the third when he beat Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask. Boston’s Jake DeBrusk cut the Capitals’ lead in half with 9:30 left, but the Bruins could not find the equalizer and will have to settle for a date with the Carolina Hurricanes as the No. 4 seed despite finishing the regular season with the league’s best record.
The Capitals and Islanders split their four meetings during the regular season, and the teams know each other well. Islanders Coach Barry Trotz left the Capitals after their 2018 Stanley Cup win, and this will be the teams’ first head-to-head postseason series since Capitals Coach Todd Reirden took over his former boss’s job.
“They got some personnel on the coaching staff we’re familiar with,” Wilson said. “That said, we’re going to be worried about our game and adapting on the go. ... We’re a good hockey team, and we’ll be ready to go.”
“I think it will be a hell of a series," Trotz said. "Both teams are well-equipped to go at each other.”
Washington played its third straight game without defenseman John Carlson on Sunday, and his uncertain status remains a concern heading into the first round. Carlson suffered an undisclosed injury in Washington’s exhibition victory against the Hurricanes on July 29. Reirden has repeatedly said since then that the team is being cautious with its Norris Trophy finalist and does not want to do anything that could cause a setback before the playoffs begin. But Carlson’s status for the first round is still unknown, and Reirden said Sunday only that he is “hopeful” Carlson can play in Game 1.
Center Lars Eller missed his second straight game Sunday after he returned to the Washington area Wednesday for the birth of his second child. Eller was back in the Toronto bubble on Saturday, but he must remain in quarantine until he can produce at least four consecutive negative tests over a four-day period. Eller could be ready to play as early as Wednesday if nothing goes wrong, but Reirden reiterated the timeline for Eller’s return is up to the NHL.
With those two regulars out, the Capitals’ depth was tested again Sunday. Travis Boyd remained in Eller’s place and recorded one shot on goal in 9:50 of ice time. Rookie defenseman Martin Fehervary, 20, made his round-robin debut, slotting into the lineup for Radko Gudas, who had replaced Carlson in the previous two games. Fehervary skated alongside Michal Kempny and tallied a game-high seven hits in 15:14.
“Martin’s a really solid prospect for us," Reirden said. "We think he’s going to play in the league for a long time. It’s just a matter of putting him in situations where he can have success, he can grow, he can get better, and this was the right opportunity to put him in today.”
The Capitals struggled to generate offense in the early going Sunday, and Oshie’s goal with 16 seconds left in the first period, which came after he stripped Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara of the puck, came on just the team’s second shot. The first shot came 9:09 into the game, after the Capitals went the first 9:42 without a shot in their previous game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Goaltender Braden Holtby helped the Capitals maintain the one-goal lead until Wilson’s insurance goal in the third. Holtby saved 30 of 31 shots Sunday, allowing only DeBrusk’s goal to slip through his pads.
Holtby earned his 49th career postseason win, tying Glenn Hall for the 21st most in NHL history. When he goes for No. 50 against the Islanders, the stakes will be higher.
“Yeah, [I] feel pretty comfortable right now,” Holtby said. “[I] put a lot of work in the last couple months and had to fix a few things and work on a few things over the break to strengthen up, and every game we played here you get a little more stamina and more and more comfortable, and I think the whole group is pretty comfortable going into Round 1 now.”
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