With their 2-0 win over the New York Rangers on Wednesday, the Capitals clinched the Presidents’ Trophy for the second-straight season, giving them home ice advantage for the entirety of their playoff run.
That essentially makes their final two games meaningless, at least standings-wise. With two games remaining, a Saturday matinee against the Boston Bruins and a Sunday showdown against the Florida Panthers, there is nothing left for the Capitals to accomplish. They have their seed locked up.
However, the Capitals don’t see it that way. At the conclusion of Friday’s morning skate, Barry Trotz preached to his team about the importance of these final two games.
“I said three things to the guys today,” Trotz said. “Be on the plane, let’s make sure we play right and let’s finish strong.”
While teams that have locked up their seeds in the playoffs, like the Chicago Blackhawks, who clinched the Western Conference, and the New York Rangers, who secured the first Wild Card spot, have rested some of their players (the Blackhawks went without Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Artem Anisimov in their most recent game, while the Rangers played without Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, Jesper Fast, Rick Nash, Brady Skjei and Nick Holden against Washington), the Capitals are opting to continue pushing the pace with their top players. Resting is just incomprehensible with this team.
“Personally, I want to play every game,” Tom Wilson said. “A lot of guys in this room would probably tell you the same thing. You see other teams maybe resting guys that are banged up, but if you’re healthy and you’re feeling good, I don’t think anyone on this team would ever ask for the night off or want the night off.”
Two players will be getting tomorrow night off. John Carlson is still day-to-day with a lower body injury, while Brett Connolly did not participate in practice due to illness. Trotz said that he expects Connolly to return for the game against Florida, and he wouldn’t rule out Carlson for the Florida game. But Trotz said that as long as no one else is banged up, he doesn’t see a reason to sit any of his guys.
Part of the reason behind the Capitals’ collective mindset of continuing to play each game as if it means something is because the Capitals are clearly starting to ramp up their play. In the last 10 games, Washington has gone 9-1-0, and while they had two underwhelming performances against two lowly teams in the Arizona Coyotes and the Colorado Avalanche, the Capitals have been pleased with their overall efforts, and they want to continue that for the conclusion of the season.
“We look at every game the same,” Wilson said. “We want to win, we want to get the two points. That’s why we’ve been so good lately. It doesn’t change for us. We just want to be hitting our stride and we don’t want to take a shift off. We got to be ready to go for crunch time here, and with two games left, we’ve got to be thinking the same way for those.”
In the Capitals’ last five games, the Capitals have surrendered more shot attempts than they’ve generated just once at 5v5 (adjusted for score and venue). And over the course of the last ten games, the Capitals have scored 37 goals while allowing just 23. But, over the course of those same 10 games, they’ve taken command of the possession game, recording a dominating 56.58 shot attempts-for percentage.
The fact that it took the Capitals a bit longer this year to clinch the Presidents’ Trophy may have played into the Capitals favor. Last year, Washington managed to secure the trophy by the 75th game, which was the earliest the Presidents’ Trophy had been clinched since the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings earned it in 74 games. That gave the Capitals seven games in which there was essentially no reason to play.
However, by sealing the rights to the this year’s trophy in 80 games, the Capitals played at their full potential for almost the entirety of the season. That allowed the Capitals to churn out win after win and build momentum in the process, something that Trotz believes is important when heading into that first playoff series.
“I think you want to feel confident going into the playoffs,” Trotz said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. We’ve played some meaningful games, we’ve played the right way and we’ve got good results. So, that’s really helped the confidence.
“I think you just want to be committed to getting ready for the playoffs. You’re going to have probably three or four days after we’re done here. So, you don’t want to just shut it down, let things cool down for six or seven days [and then] crank it up again. I think you get three or four days, you’re going to be pretty excited to play and then we’ll go from there.”
The Capitals still don’t know who their playoff opponent is. It’s likely going to be one of three teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Ottawa Senators and the Bruins, three teams Trotz said that his team feels “comfortable” with. However, both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Islanders could technically finish in that second Wild Card spot.
The Capitals don’t particularly care who they face. They may be checking in on the standings because, after all, they are hockey fans as well. But, for the most part, they are just looking forward to kicking off these playoffs, no matter who it may be against.
“I think it’s fun to look at the standings and stuff, and it’s always that fun time of the year where you get towards the end and you get to see who’s in and who’s not, who’s playing who,” Wilson said. “But at the end of the day, you don’t look at it too much until [a matchup] actually happens. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”