- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2015

A tangible lull rolled through the Washington Capitals‘ morning skate on Wednesday, which, to be fair, could be entirely justified. The team had qualified for the playoffs three days earlier, mathematically finding itself in the postseason hours after defeating the Detroit Red Wings, and with two games remaining in the regular season, the natural inclination would be to pack it up, take it easy and prepare for what lies ahead.

There was one slight problem with that approach: The Capitals were not merely content with having additional games on the schedule. If they are to play into the spring, they want to make sure they play deep into the spring, and an opportunity to further their chances of doing so would arrive that night in the form of a game against the surging Boston Bruins.

That was why coaches nudged players for a greater focus on the ice that morning. That was why Barry Trotz reminded them in the dressing room before the game to remain on point. A victory would go a long way toward seizing home-ice advantage through at least the first round of the playoffs.

“I think we’ve been fortunate this year that it seems like every game, there’s something to play for,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “There hasn’t been a lull in our season at all. It’s either been fighting to climb up our division, [or] fighting to keep the teams that are fighting for playoff spots away from us. It hasn’t been a year where there’s space between us and other opponents, so I think it’s helped us prepare in different ways.”

That concentration led to what may have been the Capitals‘ most thorough outing of the season, a 3-0 dispatch of the Bruins that pushed Washington over 100 points in the standings for the first time in four years.

Now, the path to opening a first-round series at Verizon Center is clear: Should the Capitals defeat the New York Rangers at home on Saturday afternoon, or the New York Islanders lose one of their two remaining games, Washington will collect the spoils that come with a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division.

“Those small goals are good for a team that’s already clinched,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “You have to have something to play for, something to shoot for, I think. Know what’s at stake, and I think getting home-ice advantage is something that we’ve talked about. It’s an opportunity, and that opportunity is there, so let’s play well and keep striving for something here.

“It is pretty easy to just let off the gas once you clinch a playoff spot. The fun’s starting next week, but we’ve got one more game to take care of business and be excited about, and then let’s get it going next week.”

The Bruins arrived in Washington riding a five-game winning streak — one that buoyed their chances of snagging a wild-card spot and participating in the postseason for the eighth consecutive year.

But the Capitals foiled their opponent’s best intentions early, snagging a two-goal lead just over seven minutes in. The Bruins struggled to find an answer — even Washington’s all-rookie fourth line was “overwhelming the other team,” Trotz said — causing their coach, Claude Julien, to frantically shuffle his lines in search of a spark.

Boston also failed to solve Holtby, who became just the second goaltender in the past 25 years to shut out the Bruins three times in one season. Holtby, who picked up his ninth shutout of the season, turned away 27 shots on Wednesday, giving him a combined 88 saves over those three games.

“I think we handled it right,” Trotz said. “I liked our response right out of the gate. I thought we sort of set the tone. We were skating. We were making plays. We went after them. We weren’t sitting back. I like that mentality. I think that’s so important for [us]. They had a lot of urgency. They had a desperate team, and in the first period, we sort of got them on their heels.”

Despite the importance of the task at hand, and the gentle reminders of accomplishing those smaller goals, the Capitals weren’t wrapped too tightly that they couldn’t afford a release. A half-hour before the game, players pulled a time-honored trick on Stan Galiev, a wide-eyed rookie making his NHL debut.

Galiev was told that he could lead the team onto the ice for warm-ups, yet when he stepped out of the tunnel, he was alone, forced to do a lap around the west end of the rink before being joined by his teammates.

Rationalizing the prank wasn’t difficult. In fact, it could be justified the same way one could condone the pregame lethargy, or the summoning of the will to fight out of it.

“Human nature,” Holtby said. “I think everyone realized it and got, as a group, our heads into it, realizing that we had to put a good performance in [that game] because there are still things that we’re playing for.”

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