A 4-1 win sends Caps into playoffs as No. 7 seed
New York - It took just 32 seconds for the Capitals to send the message that eighth place was not going to be good enough.
Even in a year when they fired a coach, dealt with two high-profile injuries and fell far short of their own lofty expectations, Washington may yet prove a factor in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Alex Ovechkin scored in the opening minute at Madison Square Garden and the Caps cruised to a 4-1 victory over the New York Rangers on Saturday night.
In the end, that wasn't enough to continue their string of Southeast Division titles. The Florida Panthers saw to that with a 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, clinching the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Washington had won four division titles in a row. Instead, the Caps earned the No. 7 seed and will face the defending champion Boston Bruins next week in a first-round series.
That matchup was made possible when the Ottawa Senators dropped a 4-2 decision to the New Jersey Devils on Saturday. Ottawa and Washington finished tied with 92 points, but the Caps earned the nod thanks to the tiebreaker - more overtime and regulation wins.
"We still had our eye on the division. It wasn't a loose locker room. It was an intense, serious tone in the locker room before the game," forward Brooks Laich said. "We just wanted to win. There wasn't anyone that mailed it in just because we were in the playoffs. Everybody gave a solid effort. Guys still blocked shots, came back defensively, back checked, did everything that we asked of them."
Ovechkin's goal came off a faceoff win by Laich. His wrist shot from above the left circle cut through traffic and beat a surprised Henrik Lundqvist in goal. It was exactly the start Washington needed to calm a raucous Garden crowd, which had hoped to see its team clinch the Presidents' Trophy for best NHL record for the first time since 1994. Instead, the Rangers will settle for being the No. 1 seed in the conference and facing Ottawa in the first round.
Just 2 minutes, 18 seconds into the game, the Caps expanded their lead when Mathieu Perreault tipped home a point shot from defenseman Roman Hamrlik. John Carlson made it 3-0 with 1:47 left in the first period when his power-play shot deflected off New York's Derek Stepan and in. Nicklas Backstrom, who missed almost three months with a concussion, recorded his first point since a Dec. 30 game against Buffalo on Carlson's tally. Backstrom then scored one of his own at 5:58 of the second period to put the game out of reach at 4-0. Brian Boyle had the lone New York goal at 12:44 of the second.
Braden Holtby finished with 35 saves in goal for Washington as the rookie made a strong final impression before the postseason begins. Given injuries to veteran Tomas Vokoun (groin) and Michal Neuvirth (lower-body injury), the net will likely be Holtby's. He will face a Boston team that is seeded second, but that Washington beat three times this season - all of those wins without Backstrom in the lineup.
"It doesn't matter which place you are in a season. In the playoffs it's different season, it's different hockey," Ovechkin said. "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 battle for one goal."