Playing their sixth game in nine nights and less than 24 hours after a huge victory in Toronto on Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals came home to the Verizon Center to take on a resting, but limited New York Rangers squad on Wednesday night. The Caps needed just a single point to clinch their second straight Presidents’ Trophy, and they overachieved defeating the Rags, 2-0, behind goals from Justin Williams and Evgeny Kuznetsov along with 24 saves from Braden Holtby.
The victory improves the Caps to 54-18-8 (116 points) and renders their last two regular season games, at Boston on Saturday afternoon (3 pm) and home against Florida on Sunday night (7 pm), as meaningless. All that is left to decide now is who Washington will face in the first round next week. It could be Boston, Ottawa, Toronto, Tampa, or the New York Islanders, with those last two clubs having a very slim chance of making the postseason. If you ask me who I’d prefer to face, I’ll give you the same answer I’ve provided to Nestor Aparacio on air on WNST for a couple of months now – the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s a good matchup for the Caps against a young team that is fast, but not physical, and likely just thrilled to go from last in the league to qualifying for the playoffs in a single year. The team I’d least like to face is Boston. They are hot, experienced and physical. You aren’t allowed to tank games, but if I’m the Capitals, I find a way to lose on Saturday to ensure that the Bruins aren’t Washington’s first round opponent.
Whoever it is, though, Washington will have to play well to advance. The first round is the hardest to win. Following Wednesday’s victory, NBC analyst Keith Jones stated that the Caps have no holes in their lineup, but he still picks the defending champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, to repeat. As for his studio partner, Mike Milbury, well the man who is never shy to say what he feels says this is the Capitals year, that they shouldn’t be afraid of anyone, and they should act like it.
But words are just that so Washington, which leads the NHL in goals against, will have to play solid defensively like they’ve done in their last three games (allowed three goals in three games) to advance in the playoffs. There have not been many odd man rushes allowed in the two most recent wins and the Caps have really stayed tight in their own end and prevented the opposition from getting quality scoring chances in the paint. In addition, their gap control between the forwards and defensemen has been the best it’s been since the bye week, and that is very important because Coach Barry Trotz wants his defensemen up in the play and joining the rush. Structure is so important, especially with the talent the Capitals have on their roster.
On Wednesday night, after a shaky first period where they were sloppy and had far too many offensive blue line turnovers, the Caps played very structured and really throttled the Rangers with a strong neutral zone over the last 40 minutes. Time after time New York would get the puck out and just run into a wall of Caps, who would gather in the biscuit and put it back in the Rangers end. It was textbook hockey, especially after Williams deflected home an Alex Ovechkin shot in period two to give the Capitals a one goal lead. That tally was on the power play and Kuznetsov made a great pass to the Gr8, who took his time to shoot the puck. The disc first hit the glove of Rangers defensemen Kevin Klein, who created a nice screen on Henrik Lundqvist (23 saves), and then Williams’ leg to ramp up and over the King’s left pad. Initially the tally was credited to Ovi, but later changed to “Mr. Hair.”
The Caps led 1-0 after two frames and then in that final period they extended their lead. Brooks Orpik went down and painfully blocked a Rangers shot and the Capitals went the other way. Williams fed Marcus Johansson on the right wing and as Jojo carried the puck across the offensive blue line, Kuzy broke away from the defense and #90 saucered a beauty of a pass to #92 and he went in alone on King Henrik and beat him like a rented mule at 5:42 of the final stanza. Washington would lock it down from there with great forechecking and a suffocating neutral zone. The Holtbeast didn’t have to make many tough saves over the last 40 minutes, but he was super solid in earning his ninth shutout of the campaign.
New York was playing without Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, and Mats Zuccarello, but the Caps were once again without John Carlson. With both teams pretty much knowing where their seeding was going to be for the playoffs, there wasn’t a whole ton of intensity to this affair. But the Capitals had something to play for and they got the job done to lock up some more prestigious hardware for the second straight season.
AND THE CAPS HAVE WON THE FEDERAL LEAGUE!!!
Every man in that Caps locker room will tell you, however, that the Presidents’ Trophy is nice, hey it’s real and it’s spectacular, but it’s not the trophy they really want.
Notes: Kevin Shattenkirk, when interviewed afterwards on NBC, told Pierre McGuire that the one thing he didn’t know about the Caps players from the outside prior to his trade to DC was “the hunger” they have for winning it all this season…the Caps were 1 for 4 on the power play in just 3:40 of man advantage time. The Rangers didn’t have a power play since the Capitals were outskating them and possessing the puck most of the time…final shot attempts were 52-45 for Washington. Shots on goal were 25-24 for the Caps…Matt Niskanen led the Capitals in ice time with 22:56 and each Washington skater logged at least 10 minutes…Orpik, who eats rocks for breakfast, and Williams, led the Capitals in shots on goal with four each.