Justin Williams' late second period deflection of an Alex Ovechkin power play shot held up as the game-winning goal on Wednesday as the Caps whitewashed the New York Rangers 2-0 at Verizon Center. The victory was Washington's third in a row and its ninth in its last 10 games, but most importantly, it sealed the Metropolitan Division title and the league's best record for the Capitals for a second straight season.
Caps goalie Braden Holtby stopped all 24 shots sent in his direction on Wednesday to record his ninth shutout of the season, matching his single-season career best total established in 2014-15. Holtby now has 32 career NHL shutouts, and Wednesday marks the first he has authored against the Rangers during the regular season.
Video: Holtby earns Wednesday's Pepsi Zero Sugar Shutout
Wednesday night was Rivalry Night in Washington - "the night you love to hate," as Evgeny Kuznetsov reminded the media afterwards - but the tenor of this game between the Capitals and Rangers wasn't necessarily up to the normal standard of the rivalry between the two clubs.
With little to no upward or downward mobility in the standings, the Rangers are seemingly in cruise control, and they held six regular players out of the lineup for Wednesday's game.
"We've got six guys out of the lineup, and they're key pieces," notes Rangers center Derek Stepan. "It was definitely a different feel out there."
Video: Williams, Holtby help Caps seal Presidents' Trophy
The Caps just got back in town after their longest road trip of the season, a nine-day journey in which they played five games in eight nights in five different cities and four different time zones. The first period of Wednesday's game felt more like a late September preseason tilt than a late-season game between a pair of longtime and heated rivals.
"I didn't know what to expect," says Caps coach Barry Trotz, "This was going to be a tough one, coming home from a long road trip through multiple time zones. I thought we got stronger [as the game went on].
"The first was so-so, and then we got a little stronger and stronger. I thought we managed it much better in the second and third. Good leadership in the room, and I thought we handled it pretty well."
Video: Trotz talks after a 2-0 win vs. the New York Rangers
Neither of the two teams was able to generate much in the way of scoring chances in the game's first 20 minutes. Neither side was able to draw a power play opportunity, either, and the entire first frame was played at five-on-five.
Things didn't open up much more in the second, though there were some penalty calls that led to the odd power play here and there, and then more penalty calls that ended those power plays and left the sides skating four-on-four. Washington even had a pair of four-on-three power plays, and it was seconds after the second of those expired that Williams broke the scoreless spell.
The Caps generated some excellent looks and chances during that second four-on-three advantage, but they were unable to light the red lamp. Finally, with 20 seconds left on the power play, Ovechkin took a backhand feed from Kuznetsov and then held the puck briefly at his left dot office, surveying for some space at which to shoot.
Ovechkin slung the puck through the wickets of Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein, and the disc clicked off Williams and got past New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist to give the Caps a 1-0 lead with 5:11 remaining in the second period.
Video: NYR@WSH: Williams pots the opener with PPG
Washington nursed that lead into the third, where the game opened up just a little bit. The Caps weren't content to rest on their one-goal lead; they kept their foot on the gas and generated more than the Rangers in the way of third-period chances and looks at the net.
Early in the period, the Capitals doubled their lead on a nifty rush goal.
Seconds after Brooks Orpik blocked a J.T. Miller shot in the Washington end, Williams got the puck to Marcus Johansson, who carried up ice with speed, down the right wing side. Kuznetsov was driving the net with speed, and Johansson fed him perfectly. From just above the paint, Kuznetsov beat Lundqvist to make it a 2-0 game at 5:42 of the third.
Video: NYR@WSH: Johansson, Kuznetsov connect for nifty goal
From there, the Caps battened down the hatches to make sure they secured the shutout for Holtby. Wednesday's game was the third straight contest in which Washington blanked the opposition over the game's first 40 minutes, but the first time it was able to do so over the final 20 as well.
The next time the Caps and Rangers see one another, you can definitely expect to see a little more emotion and intensity.
"I thought our guys competed hard tonight," says Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. "I liked our structure without the puck. I don't think we gave them a lot of chances, but when we did positive things our goaltender has found his game and is looking real sharp. We didn't create much offensively, but the guys worked hard and we tried to come back but we weren't able to do it."
It's not Major League Baseball, so there were no giddy champagne celebrations with plastic covering everything in the Washington locker room afterwards. If anything, the Caps were somewhat subdued after downing the Rangers. Just back from a long and successful business trip, they took care of another piece of business on Wednesday when they nailed down the Metro Division title and the league's best record.
Video: Johansson, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov & Holtby after the win
"It's a good confidence boost, I think," says Caps forward Marcus Johansson of his team's achievement, "But it's the first goal we had for the year, and now we just focus on the next one. This is just a part of the big thing we want to do here. Now, we've just got to keep moving on and keep getting better, and be at our best when it comes down to it in the postseason."