WASHINGTON — Players can’t drink out of the Presidents’ Trophy, given to the top regular-season team in the NHL. Not that the Washington Capitals would want to, anyway.
The Capitals clinched the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs with a victory Tuesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Yet after so many early playoff exits, including a first-round loss in 2010 after finishing with the most points in the league, there are mixed emotions about the achievement.
“Honestly, no one really cares about the Presidents’ Trophy,” defenceman Karl Alzner said. “It’s more of a nice thing to happen. We’re happy about it, but that wasn’t the goal at the beginning of the year.”
Finishing with the most points in the league — and wrapping that up with six games remaining — is nothing to sneeze at. Washington has skated circles around the rest of the NHL and is the favourite to win the Cup.
The memory of six years ago is sobering for the six players left from that group, including captain Alex Ovechkin and All-Star centre Nicklas Backstrom. The 2009-10 Capitals were prohibitive favourites until they ran into hot goaltender Jaroslav Halak in the first round and lost in seven games to the Montreal Canadiens.
Backstrom certainly hasn't forgotten about that when considering what winning the Presidents' Trophy means to this year's team.
"It doesn't mean anything, to be honest with you," Backstrom said. "It's good to have home-ice advantage through the playoffs, but at the same time it doesn't matter. It doesn't even mean anything because we lost the last time in the first round when we won the Presidents' Trophy."
At 29-7-2, the Capitals have the best home record in hockey, so home ice at Verizon Center is a valuable commodity. Alzner pointed to the first-round series against the New York Islanders last season and said not having home-ice could have cost them.
History is also a grey area. Only eight of 29 Presidents' Trophy winners have won the Stanley Cup, most recently the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks. Three lost in the final, seven lost in the conference final, six in the second round and six in the first round.
It's no guarantee for success. But if Washington comes out of the Eastern Conference, it'll be able to match lines against the champion from the deep West, and that's no small advantage.
"In the playoffs, it seems like everything is so even," said T.J. Oshie, who spent the past seven seasons with the St. Louis Blues, one of the front-runners to emerge from the West. "There are so many one-goal games, or one-goal games with an empty-netter, or overtime games, that I think you just get a little bit more (of an) advantage in a seven-game series with the second (line) change. I think that's really important, especially when you want to match on other teams' key guys."
With the start of the playoffs more than two weeks away, the Capitals are trying to shift into that mode. And while they didn't celebrate the Presidents' Trophy, there was a moment to pause and recognize the accomplishment.
"I think the guys recognize it and they do take some joy in it," coach Barry Trotz said. "There's not going to be a champagne party or anything like that. I think there's a sense of fulfilment that we said we're going to do some things, we accomplished them so far and we've still got some things to accomplish."
Ultimately, the Capitals want the Stanley Cup, a trophy they can drink from. The franchise has never won it, and this core group has yet to make it past the second round.
The 2015-16 Capitals, though, are the deepest group in the past decade with the additions of defencemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen and forwards Oshie and Justin Williams, plus the growth of centre and leading scorer Evgeny Kuznetsov and goaltender Braden Holtby. On paper this group is better than the one that lost in the first round six years ago, but players are eager to prove it after so much regular-season success.
"We won the marathon, and now we get to prepare for the seven-game sprints," Niskanen said. "We felt that we were by far the best in the marathon this year, and now we'll see."