The score on the Capital One Arena videoboard wasn’t nearly as interesting as the ones that flashed on the screen hanging from the rafters. The Washington Capitals needed 81 games to secure the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, so the 82nd resembled an exhibition contest — three regulars got the night off with nothing at stake against the New York Islanders on Saturday night.
The games that could affect Washington’s postseason were in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Ottawa; the Capitals entered the evening’s slate with three possibilities for a first-round playoff opponent. While Washington lost to New York, 3-0, with forwards Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie and defenseman John Carlson out of the lineup, the Capitals and their fans kept on eye on the action elsewhere.
Washington finished its season with 104 points, one fewer than what the Capitals had last year, and a night that started with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets as possible first-round matchups went down to the wire. Carolina’s win over Philadelphia along with Pittsburgh going to overtime against the New York Rangers (before losing) meant Washington will play the Hurricanes to start its defense of its first Stanley Cup championship.
“The most important thing is we win, and it doesn’t matter who we’re going to play,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “They battle hard, so it’s going to be a challenge.”
After the Capitals clinched their fourth straight division title Thursday night with a win against the Montreal Canadiens, coach Todd Reirden approached his top-minute players to make collective decisions about their status for the finale. Carlson was a natural candidate for rest since he has logged the most time on ice on the roster with a career-high 25:04 per game; Washington’s top blue-liner finished the season with 13 goals and 57 assists for his first 70-point campaign. Oshie felt a game off would also save him a day of recovery Sunday, and that would help him most in preparing for the first playoff game. Backstrom said it was Reirden’s call for him to sit out, but he’s hopeful for another long postseason run, so he doesn’t mind a little break before that.
The three watched the game in the team gym downstairs. Asked how much he would pay attention to the Capitals’ game vs. their matchups involving possible first-round opponents, Backstrom said, “I’m probably going to watch our game first and make sure we play a good game, but obviously you’ve got to check the scores to see who we’re going to get.”
A player of note who remained in Washington’s lineup: Ovechkin. He came into this game leading the league with 51 goals, but Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl was just two back with 49 before the Oilers’ game late Saturday night against Calgary. With Edmonton already out of the playoff race, securing the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for a teammate takes on greater importance. An eighth goal-scoring title for Ovechkin’s career would make him the first NHL player to accomplish that feat. But Reirden said playing Ovechkin rather than resting him wasn’t related to the Richard Trophy race, adding he has “loftier goals” than that individual accomplishment.
“He doesn’t need to miss any time right now,” Reirden said before the game. “He wants to play because he wants to amp his game up and get better and be in a situation where he can play his best hockey. . . . Last year, I thought [Ovechkin] felt really good about playing in that last game and gave him a competitive advantage going into the series against Columbus and then he felt like it was something that felt him best up for success.”
Ovechkin skated 22:42 against the Islanders and had two shots on goal, two attempts blocked and three misses.
“I don’t think we puts lots of pressure on their [defensemen],” Ovechkin said. “We were kind of waiting for what was going to happen. Obviously, we’re not going to play like that in the playoffs.”
With goaltender Braden Holtby on the bench, Pheonix Copley got what is expected to be his last start of the season, and he made 21 saves. The main directive for the Capitals was to avoid getting hurt, so the game featured little contact and almost no stoppages. Copley was still tested, making several challenging saves in the first period before Islanders forward Valtteri Filppula scored on a breakaway 2:55 into the second. Filppula scored again with 9:06 left in regulation, and the Islanders’ Matt Martin had an empty-netter.
“I think the toughest game of the year to get through was probably tonight,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “That was a snooze-fest for us."
Although this game was meaningless for Washington, the Islanders, with former Capitals coach Barry Trotz at the helm, needed one standings point to ensure home-ice advantage for the first round. They’ll open against the Penguins. The other playoff matchups in the Eastern Conference: Tampa Bay vs. Columbus, and Boston vs. Toronto.
This season started with Washington raising a Stanley Cup banner for the first time, cheers of “back-to-back!” echoing in Capital One Arena that night. The Capitals have put themselves in position to do just that, and on Saturday night, not long after returning to the locker room, they at last learned that journey will begin against the Hurricanes.
“Now it's on for us, so I think guys are excited for that,” Niskanen said. “Play for real and no more pretending.”
First round of Stanley Cup Playoffs, best of seven
Game 1, Wednesday or Thursday, TBD