It's been a while since the Caps' played a regular season finale that held meaning to them, and it's not going to happen this season. Washington rendered its Saturday night date with the New York Islanders - its final game of the 2018-19 regular season - moot by wrapping up the Metropolitan Division crown on Thursday night with a solid 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens, whose own playoff hopes were dealt a harsh blow.
The Caps played a patient game, waiting for scoring chances to develop rather than forcing them, and they never trailed in Thursday's win. Montreal netminder Carey Price was excellent, especially once the Habs started taking some liberties in a futile effort to manufacture the equalizer.
In the end, it was enough for a fourth straight Metro title.
"It's certainly been a battle, right up until the 81st game that it's decided," says Reirden of winning the division. "I'm really proud of our team in going through some ups and downs during the season and eventually winning out is a big accomplishment for our team, and obviously the home ice advantage - love playing here, love the fans."
Braden Holtby was typically sharp in goal against the Habs, running his career record to 13-2-2 against Montreal. It took a good bounce on a power play for Montreal to score its only goal of the game.
Video: Capitals defeat Habs, 2-1, to clinch Metropolitan
"We had chances," says Canadiens coach Claude Julien, "And one goal was the difference. Chances were pretty even I think on both sides, and at the end of the night, they scored one more than we did."
Washington didn't generate much in the way of good scoring chances in the first. Evgeny Kuznetsov had a semi-breakaway on the first shift of the game, but he ran himself out of room to get a threatening shot on net.
The Caps' next great chance came late in the frame, and they cashed in on this one. Carl Hagelin got into the right wing corner on the forecheck, dishing the puck to linemate Brett Connolly on the half wall. Connolly spotted Lars Eller in front and quickly snapped the puck right to his tape. Eller went to the backhand and shoveled it behind former Montreal teammate Carey Price for a 1-0 Caps lead at 18:36 of the first.
Washington's advantage was short-lived. Twenty-one seconds after the goal, Nicklas Backstrom was boxed for hi-sticking, and the Canadiens pulled even on the power play with 27.7 seconds left in the frame. Two Caps defenders blunted Joel Armia's shot bid from the slot, but the puck took a Montreal roll right to Shea Weber, who scored from the inside of the left circle to make it a 1-1 game.
Knowing they likely needed to win each of their final two games to have a chance to land the final Eastern Conference playoff berth, the Habs had the better of possession throughout the first and the early part of the second as well. But the Caps converted on a Canadiens miscue to regain the lead early in the second.
Andre Burakovsky picked Paul Byron's pocket at the Montreal line, then put a pass to the slot for Nic Dowd. Dowd ripped a wrist shot that beat Price high on the glove side at 2:58, putting the Caps back on top, 2-1.
Video: MTL@WSH: Dowd snaps shot past Price
"It wouldn't have happened without him," says Dowd of Burakovsky's play. "He made a really good play stripping the guy on the blueline. And then right off a turnover there, I think we were able to capitalize on their [defensemen] being on their heels a little bit. He just made a good pass to me in the slot, and I just shot it through the air and it found some net."
Washington stayed disciplined, taking only the one penalty in the first period. In the third, the Caps routinely got pucks deep and made the Canadiens come the length of the ice for any opportunities to score. The Caps continued to generate chances of their own, too, and they were particularly adept at taking away time and space in their own end in the third.
Montreal is not mathematically eliminated, but its "tragic number" has been reduced to two. A Columbus win over the Rangers in New York on Friday would give the Blue Jackets the last remaining playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
"We're not dead," says Julien. "We need some help; we understand that. So we've got a few days here to look at what's going to happen. Hopefully we are still alive by [Friday] night, and give ourselves a chance here to stay in the race."