WASHINGTON — They did not skate the trophy around the ice or raise it above their heads in triumph. The Capitals did not bask in roaring cheers or shed tears of joy. The vibe at Verizon Center on Wednesday night was pure indifference.
For the third time in eight years the Caps secured the Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best record. They beat the New York Rangers 2-0 and that was fine. The Stanley Cup playoffs are approaching, after all, and they want to build some momentum toward the games that matter.
For Washington, the Presidents’ Trophy most certainly does not. Oh, the banner hangs from the rafters at Verizon Center, red and slick and shiny with the years 2009-10 and 2015-16 emblazoned on it. It is a tribute to the organization’s remarkable consistency over the last decade and its enduring shame. No Stanley Cup banner hangs beside it.
After their victory was complete, Caps players skated over to goalie Braden Holtby and tapped him on the helmet or gently knocked heads together with him. It’s the same thing they’ve done 53 times before this season after a win. Wednesday was no different even if it clinched the league’s top regular season once again.
“We didn’t mention it,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “All I said was, ‘Good work by us.’ Then we talked about winning. We said we wanted to win the [Metropolitan Division] and we did.”
That indifference is understandable. Washington lost in the first round of the playoffs after its Presidents’ Trophy in 2010. The scars from that series against Montreal lingered for years.
Last season, the Caps secured the Presidents’ Trophy with seven games still to play as they ran roughshod over the NHL. All they got for their trouble was a second-round loss to Pittsburgh, which went on to win another Cup. The Penguins hang the banner that matters.
There was some joy on the ice. Alex Ovechkin was originally credited with his 34th goal of the year — waiting and holding before ripping a shot past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in the second period on the power play. That goal was later deemed to have hit forward Justin Williams in the leg so the goal is his.
Holtby finished with 24 saves and his league-best ninth shutout of the season. Evgeny Kuznetsov finished off a beautiful pass from teammate Marcus Johansson and deked to his forehand to beat Lundqvist and set the crowd screaming early in the third period. New York never really threatened after that until a late push with Lundqvist pulled from his net. The Presidents’ Trophy was Washington’s again.
“Maybe it’s somewhere in the head when we think about that, but we never talk about it,” Kuznetsov said. “Some guys gonna say they didn’t care. They liar. It’s always nice to win something.”
The Rangers, of course, had nothing to play for. New York already knows it will see Montreal in the first round next week and sat six regulars with various bumps and bruises. Lundqvist was in goal as he tries to shake off the rust from a reported hip injury, but the Rangers looked content to just get through the game in one piece.
The Caps will wait over the final two games to see if they play Boston, Ottawa or Toronto in the first round. Washington faces the Bruins in Boston on Saturday and will try not to rest on this accomplishment. Eight of the 29 teams that have won the Presidents’ Trophy have gone on to win the Cup. The 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks are the last to do so.
“It means we’re best team in the season,” Ovechkin said. “But the most important season is coming soon.”
The Caps secured a few other valuable trinkets. They will have home-ice advantage throughout the postseason. That hasn’t helped them much in the past, but it’s still better than the alternative. Washington also earned its second consecutive Metropolitan Division title and its 54th win.
More important, the Caps won’t have to face either Pittsburgh or Columbus in the first round. Despite playing in the same division, those three teams rank first, third and fourth in the NHL in points. Either the Penguins (109 points) or Blue Jackets (106 points) will be eliminated after the first round because of the NHL’s division-based playoff format.
Minutes after the game players curtly acknowledged an accomplishment they never talk about anyway and were ready to move on.
“We knew what was going on, but it was more about the playoff situation,” Holtby said. “You obviously want to not play either Pittsburgh or Columbus in the first round, but in the end it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to go through good teams. Hopefully this just gives us a little bit more of an advantage.”
It’s been a fine season — 54-18-8 with 114 points and a chance for more. It is again one of the best teams in franchise history, certainly the best in this year’s NHL. But they don’t give you trophies to lift or banners to hang or rings to wear for that. Those things are still out there in the looming spring where life-long dreams are reached or shattered. The Presidents’ Trophy just can’t compare.
“That’s not our end goal. We’ve still got a ways to go for that,” Johansson said. “This was a part of what we want to do, but the big thing — we’ve got to keep working for that. And we’re not happy until we get it.”
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