NEW YORK -- For the first time in two years, the Washington Capitals will not enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a No. 1 seed. For the first time in four years, they won't have home-ice advantage in the first round.
Based on their commanding performance against the East-leading New York Rangers on Saturday night, however, the Capitals appear comfortable with entering the postseason in the role of hunters instead of the hunted for a change.
Alex Ovechkin scored early, Nicklas Backstrom looked like his old self and rookie goaltender Braden Holtby was sublime as the Capitals cruised to a 4-1 victory at Madison Square Garden against a Rangers team that had its sights set on clinching the Presidents' Trophy.
The Capitals jumped to a 2-0 lead early, getting goals by Ovechkin and Mathieu Perrault on the team's first two shots before defenseman John Carlson drove home a dagger by scoring a power-play goal with 1:47 left in the first period to make it 3-0. The 22-year-old Holtby, getting a start in place of the injured Michal Neuvirth, stopped 35 shots, including all 13 he faced in the third period.
The Capitals needed the Panthers to lose in regulation Saturday to win the Southeast Division for a fifth straight season, but Florida's 4-1 victory against Carolina ended those hopes.
With Florida winning the division, the Capitals enter the playoffs as the No. 7 seed and will face the defending champion Boston Bruins in the first round. It's unfamiliar territory for Ovechkin, who said he's learned in recent years that seeding doesn't guarantee anything.
"It doesn't matter which place you are in the season," Ovechkin said. "In the playoffs, it's a different season. It's different hockey. Every mistake can cost you a series and every mistake can cost you a game. In the playoffs, it's top 16 teams in the League battling for one goal. So it doesn't matter."
Ovechkin set the tone early by scoring off a faceoff just 32 seconds into contest. Center Brooks Laich obliterated Derek Stepan on an offensive-zone faceoff and pulled the puck cleanly back to Ovechkin, who snapped a quick shot over the catching glove of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
When Ovechkin wasn't scoring, he was delivering with his physical play. Not long after his goal, the Capitals' captain drilled Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi with a big open-ice hit.
"Whenever he has a start like that, the team usually follows," forward Troy Brouwer said. "He's a guy that has to be on his best every night. The guys respect him when he's playing well and he's easy to follow when he's playing well like that."
Perreault followed Ovechkin's goal with one of his own 1:46 later, deflecting a point shot by defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who had two assists, past Lundqvist to make it 2-0.
After Carlson made it 3-0 with the Capitals' first power-play goal in six games, Holtby locked things down. He came up with consecutive breakaway stops on Carl Hagelin and Brandon Prust in the third period and allowed just a wraparound goal to Brian Boyle midway through the second.
"Our goalie was good tonight," Caps coach Dale Hunter said. "He stood tall for us. We jumped on them early and got some early goals. We won big faceoffs, and created goals for ourselves."
An encouraging sign for the Caps heading into the playoffs was Backstrom, who was playing just his fourth game since a three-month absence due to a concussion. He put Washington ahead 4-0 with a deadly accurate wrist shot in the second period and mixed it up with Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, earning two minutes in the box for roughing.
"It's good for your confidence. The first three games has been a a little bit up-and-down for me," said Backstrom, who had two points Saturday after failing to register a point in his first three games back. "But it felt better tonight. Hopefully I can keep doing like I did tonight. You're obviously worried you're going to get hit again. But I took a couple hits tonight and was playing more physical. That was good. It felt good too."
The Rangers can still win the Presidents' Trophy if the Vancouver Canucks lose in regulation to the Edmonton Oilers in a game that started at 10 p.m. ET. Rangers coach John Tortorella chalked up the loss to the Capitals receiving some fortunate bounces early and Holtby playing well. The loss did nothing to shake Tortorella's confidence in his team.
"This team here, the New York Rangers, can beat anybody in this League," Tortorella said. "We're just looking forward to getting started in the playoffs."
Lundqvist allowed four goals on 17 shots but came out of the game no worse for wear after dealing with a swollen right arm that gave him some discomfort in practice Friday. Stepan, the recipient of a knee-on-knee hit against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night, had two shots in 20:06 of ice time.
"I felt pretty good going into the game," Lundqvist said. "It was just a tough first period where the puck just seemed to go their way. It was a challenge to stay focused and not get rattled or try to do too much, but I just tried to play my game."
The Rangers will turn their attention to the Senators in a series that will likely get under way Thursday at MSG. The Senators won three of four meetings this season, so the Rangers know this won't be a walkover.
"We're going to come out with energy and emotion," center Brad Richards said. "We've played this type of style all year and it's going to have to go up -- the level will have to go up. (The Senators) are a very offensive team and very optimistic. But we'll work at it all week and can't wait to get out of here in front of our own crowd and get to work."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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