The best team in the league was playing at Capital One Arena on Thursday night, a chance to clinch the Presidents’ Trophy at stake. And in a change from the past two seasons, it wasn’t the Washington Capitals.
The Nashville Predators arrived in Chinatown with the league’s best record, taking that mantle from the Capitals, who have a banner hanging for their recent back-to-back regular season titles. But while Washington has excelled at playing well over the course of 82 games, that hasn’t translated into much playoff success, with the team eliminated short of the conference final in three straight seasons.
The Predators beat the Capitals, 4-3, to secure the Presidents’ Trophy and the top playoff seed in the league. If Nashville is the measuring stick this season, then Washington can be encouraged by the competitive game just one week before the postseason. The loss was just the Capitals’ second since March 20, and Washington didn’t have anything to play for with the Metropolitan Division crown already clinched.
“They’re a good benchmark,” forward Tom Wilson said. “They’re a good hockey team. . . . I think we played fairly well at times. We can obviously tighten some stuff up.”
Center Evgeny Kuznetsov lifted the Capitals to a 3-2 lead just 1:07 into the third period, roofing a backhand from an odd angle. But after Washington’s penalty kill had stifled a string of 15 power plays over the previous four games, the unit allowed its second goal of the game, off a shot from Roman Josi with 11:41 left in regulation. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer caught a bad break on the goal; his skate blade snapped off as he tried to stop the shot.
About six minutes later, Grubauer reached out his glove as he leaned back in net and tried to catch a shot from Viktor Arvidsson, but the puck deflected off Ryan Johansen to get past him. That stood as the game-winner.
“But I like the way we’re playing,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “We’re playing with lots of speed, we’re playing with lots of pace, and that was a good test.”
The Capitals’ top priority in this last week of the regular season is to get through it healthy. Depth forward Alex Chiasson didn’t play most of the game, and Trotz said he got sick on the bench. Center Jay Beagle missed a second straight game with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury, and Trotz said he expects Beagle back by the playoffs. Beagle seemed to aggravate his injury in the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday night, and Washington has had some close calls since. On Monday, captain Alex Ovechkin awkwardly crashed into the end boards in St. Louis, was slow to get up and appeared hobbled afterward.
Ovechkin played the rest of the game, scoring into an empty net at the end. But he didn’t practice Wednesday, and the Capitals considered resting him against the Predators. Ovechkin insisted he felt better and wanted to play; he has dressed in every other game this season and is poised for his fourth 82-game campaign. Before the game, Washington honored him for recently playing in his 1,000th career game.
Ovechkin showed he was indeed feeling like himself, tying the game less than five minutes into the second period when he scored from his left faceoff circle sweet spot on a power play. That was Ovechkin’s 47th goal of the season, keeping his pursuit of an eighth 50-goal campaign alive with just one game remaining. Ovechkin is poised to win his seventh Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for scoring the most goals in the NHL.
“Everything is possible,” Ovechkin said. “I had lots of moments tonight and previous games. I just have to hit the net, and you never know what’s going to happen.”
After a slow start to the season, Washington’s power play has ascended to seventh in the NHL at 22.4 percent . It scored for a second time in the second period, when Kuznetsov’s intended pass for Ovechkin deflected off Ryan Ellis and past Nashville goaltender Juuse Saros. The Capitals were outshooting the Predators 16-2 when Craig Smith scored his second goal of the game on Nashville’s third shot of the period.
The Predators then pulled away in the final frame, and they watched the end of Florida’s game against Boston, with the Panthers’ win securing the regular season crown.
“We’ve seen especially here [in Washington] that the [Presidents’] Trophy doesn’t mean that much,” Predators forward Filip Forsberg said.