WASHINGTON — Winning the Presidents’ Trophy is becoming old hat for the Washington Capitals, though this time it could be more important than ever.
The Capitals beat the New York Rangers 2-0 on Wednesday night to wrap up their second consecutive regular-season points title, the top seed in the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division title. With all those banner additions, the best home team in the NHL will have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
Even though Washington beat an opponent with nothing to play for and six regulars out of the lineup, Alex Ovechkin is rolling and believes he and his teammates are trending positively as they finished atop the league standings for the third time in eight seasons.
"It means we’re best team in the season, but the most important season is coming soon," said Ovechkin, whose shot was tipped by Justin Williams for the game-winner on the power play. "I think everybody focusing, everybody playing the right direction."
Evgeny Kuznetsov also scored and Braden Holtby had a 24-save shutout of the Rangers, who are locked into the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and will face the Atlantic Division-champion Montreal Canadiens. New York looked to be going through the motions, but Washington coach Barry Trotz said there was "unfinished business," and his players took care of it in a game that had all the intensity of the preseason.
The Capitals didn’t acknowledge their accomplishment, but they understood what was at stake.
"Some guys gonna say they didn’t care, they liar," said Kuznetsov, who scored for the fourth time in 19 games. "It’s always nice to win something."
The Rangers would’ve liked to win, but they put more of a priority on giving banged up forwards Mats Zuccarello, Rick Nash and Jesper Fast and defencemen Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei and Nick Holden a night off.
"It was a little different feel obviously in the locker room," said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was sharp in making 23 saves in his fifth consecutive start. "You’re going to notice that. There’s no question. If you can’t tell a difference when that many good players are gone, something’s up."
For Washington, Ovechkin getting back on track and Kuznetsov scoring for the fourth time in 19 games made for good signs with a potentially difficult first-round matchup looming against the likes of Boston, Ottawa or Toronto.
Trotz said the Capitals never talked about winning the Presidents’ Trophy but rather winning the hypercompetitive Metropolitan Division and giving themselves the all-important home ice in the playoffs.
"It just gives us that opportunity to have the last change in a Game 7 or crowd behind us or whatever," Trotz said. "It’s a point of pride that we’ve been consistent."
Eight of the 30 Presidents’ Trophy winners won the Stanley Cup, three lost in the final, six lost in the conference finals, seven lost in the second round and six lost in the first round. In the salary-cap era that began in 2005-06, two of the 11 winners won the Cup, one lost in the final, two lost in the conference finals, two lost in the second round and four lost in the first round.
The Capitals were eliminated by the eventual Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round last year and got knocked out in the first round by the Canadiens in 2010. Only Ovechkin, centre Nicklas Backstrom and defencemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson remain from the team that lost Game 7 to Montreal that year.
That past matters far less than the advantage of home ice and first place this spring, which means avoiding a brutal first-round opponent.
"You obviously want to not play either Pittsburgh or Columbus in the first round, but in the end it doesn’t matter," said Holtby, who leads the league with 42 victories. "You got to go through good teams, and hopefully this just gives us a little bit more of an advantage."
NOTES: Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said the injured players would have all played if the game mattered and will be ready for the start of the playoffs. … Carlson missed a second consecutive game with a lower-body injury that Trotz said he doesn’t consider serious.
Rangers: Visit Ottawa on Saturday in a game that means far more to the Senators’ playoff positioning than New York’s.
Capitals: Visit the Boston Bruins on Saturday in a potential first-round playoff preview.