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Presidents' Trophy changes nothing for Capitals

Remain focused on playing their game in preparation for playoffs

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The subdued mood in the Washington Capitals locker room gave little indication that they had achieved anything of significance with their 2-0 victory against the New York Rangers at Verizon Center on Wednesday.

If there was any acknowledgement among them that they had won the Presidents' Trophy, clinching the No. 1 seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second consecutive season and third time in eight seasons, they didn't admit it.

"We didn't mention it," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "All I said was, 'Good work by us.' Then we talked about winning. We said we wanted to win the Metro, and we did."

Although center Evgeny Kuznetsov said, "It's always nice to win something," the Capitals never had any interest in the Presidents' Trophy. What they really have been pushing for in going 10-1-1 in their past 12 games is first place in the uber-competitive Metropolitan Division, which happens to coincide this season with first place in the Eastern Conference and NHL standings.

Video: NYR@WSH: Johansson, Kuznetsov connect for nifty goal

It means avoiding a potentially grueling Eastern Conference First Round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, their longtime nemesis, or the Columbus Blue Jackets, a deep team that will take a physical toll on any playoff opponent. Now the Penguins and the Blue Jackets, who are second and fourth in the League standings, will have to face each other in the first round.

The Capitals will face the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. Right now, that would be the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it easily could end up the Boston Bruins or Ottawa Senators. (The Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders also are mathematically alive for that berth.)

"You obviously want to not play either Pittsburgh or Columbus in the first round, but in the end it doesn't matter," said goaltender Braden Holtby, who made 24 saves for his League-leading 42nd win and ninth shutout. "You've got to go through good teams, and hopefully this just gives us a little bit more of an advantage."

Video: NYR@WSH: Holtby flashes the leather to deny Klein

With the Presidents' Trophy comes home-ice advantage for as long as the Capitals are in the playoffs. And there is no question that finishing first in the division gives them an easier path than having to defeat the Penguins and the Blue Jackets to reach the Eastern Conference Final, which likely would have been the case if they finished second or third.

The Stanley Cup door might never be more open for the Capitals than it is now after the Penguins announced Wednesday that workhorse defenseman Kris Letang needs surgery for a herniated disk in his neck and will miss the entire playoffs. The Penguins defeated the Capitals on the way to each of their past two Stanley Cup titles (2009, 2016).

But the Capitals know well that no playoff series is easy. They haven't advanced past the second round since they made their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998, when they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.

Trotz tried in vain last season to quash the talk of the Capitals' past playoff failures, claiming they had nothing to do with the present. That didn't prevent their history from being dredged up again when they lost to the Penguins in the second round.

The Capitals have tried to quietly go about their business this season. Yet, here they are again as Presidents' Trophy winners, adding another layer of history for them to overcome.

No Presidents' Trophy winner has won the Stanley Cup since the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks, one of eight teams to do it since the Presidents' Trophy was first awarded in 1985-86.

Since a four-season stretch from 1998-99 through 2001-02 when the Presidents' Trophy winner won the Stanley Cup three times, it's happened twice: the Red Wings in 2007-08 and the Blackhawks in 2012-13.

The first two times the Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy did not end well. In 2009-10, they went 54-15-13 and set a Washington record with 121 points, but they were upset by the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Last season, they went 56-18-8 with 120 points, setting a Capitals record for wins, before being knocked off by the Penguins.

Video: NYR@WSH: Williams pots the opener with PPG

With two games remaining this season, they are 54-18-8 with 116 points. The difference is in how they've gotten here.

This time, they needed to play hard into the final week of the regular season to hold off the Penguins and Blue Jackets. Last season, they won the division and Eastern Conference by 16 points ahead of Pittsburgh and the Presidents' Trophy by 11 ahead of the Dallas Stars, clinching with seven games remaining.

With little to play for, they coasted through the final month of the regular season, going 7-5-4, and never were able to flip the switch and find their best game in the playoffs. It appeared it might happen again this season when they lost four in a row from March 6-12, but they have surged since then.

Their win Wednesday completed a difficult stretch of six games in nine nights, including the first five on the road, when they went 5-1-0. To Trotz, how they are playing now is like night and day compared to last season at this point.

"It feels like it, that's for sure," he said. "Last year, we just went through it. This year, we're competing."

How far that will carry the Capitals from here remains to be seen. They know none of this will matter if they don't end up skating around with the Stanley Cup in June.

"It means we're best team in the [regular] season," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said of the Presidents' Trophy. "But the most important season is coming soon. I think we [are going] in the right way. I think everybody's focusing, everybody's playing the right direction."

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