One quirk of the NHL’s divisional playoff format is that clinching the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular-season record in the league didn’t matter nearly so much to the Capitals as winning their division. Of course, they’re happy to do both.
“You obviously want to not play either Pittsburgh or Columbus in the first round,” said goalie Braden Holtby, who recorded his NHL-best 42nd win and ninth shutout in Washington’s 2-0 win over the Rangers. Since the Metro is the best of the East this year, the Caps had to take first to avoid the Penguins (109 points) or Blue Jackets (106 points) when the playoff open up next week. They’ve now done so, setting up a matchup with either the Maple Leafs, Senators, or Bruins.
The game itself is barely worth mentioning. The Rangers (who are now locked in to a first-round series against Montreal) rested six regulars, and there wasn’t much intensity on either side. This was some nice puck movement on the power play from the Caps, for a goal that was credited to Justin Williams:
And this was, uh, a nice butt check:
This is the second straight Presidents’ Trophy for the Capitals, and their third since 2010. And as everyone inside and out of the locker room knows, that doesn’t mean a thing—they haven’t made it past the second round in the Ovechkin era.
“We didn’t mention it,” Coach Barry Trotz said [of the Presidents’ Trophy]. “All I said was, ‘Good work by us.’”
I know that you could fill the Verizon Center rafters with banners from years past reading “This time will be different,” but Washington really is the NHL’s best team. That certainly doesn’t mean they’ll finally win the damn thing, but it’s obviously better to have home-ice advantage than not, and it’s obviously not a fluke to have 116 points (and counting), especially in one of the strongest divisions in recent memory. The Caps are legit, and in a year with just three truly great teams (by my count, and no, Columbus is not one of them), this may be their best shot at a Cup.
The first potential roadblock isn’t far out, though. Thanks to the much-criticized playoff format, the Capitals will have a second-round date with the winner of the Penguins-Blue Jackets series. That could bring up bad memories of Washington’s second-round loss to Pittsburgh last year, a series that put the conference’s two best teams against each other a round too early. But that’s the bracket, and that’s the reality: If the Caps are to be the league’s best, they’ll have to beat the best sometime.