- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2017

Late Wednesday night, as the Capitals trudged one by one into their locker room underneath the Verizon Center, not one player stopped to congratulate another for their win over the New York Rangers, which secured them the NHL’s best record for the second year in a row. There was certainly no champagne, and there was barely any celebrating.

“We only do that for five seconds, that’s it,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said.

Had some lost soul passed by, (granted, such people don’t typically wander into NHL locker rooms, but suspend your disbelief momentarily) it would not have been apparent that the 23 players inside that room had just proven themselves to be hockey’s best for the second year running.

The Presidents’ Trophy? Shrug.

“I don’t care about that,” Kuznetsov said.

In the same breath, however, Kuznetsov contradicted himself.

“Maybe it’s somewhere in the head when we think about that but we never talk about it,” he said. “Some guys [will] say they didn’t care, they lie. It’s always nice to win something.”

It’s true that most people enjoy winning, and getting a trophy that says you’ve consistently been better than your competition doesn’t exactly sound like a chore, right?

Wrong. At least according to Braden Holtby.

“The only nice thing about the Presidents’ Trophy right now is that we [win] our division,” the Capitals’ goalie said. “The other stuff doesn’t really matter, just the way it played out. We have two more games and that’s to feed off these last three and go into the playoffs in the right frame of mind feeling good about our game.”

As you probably already know, the Presidents’ Trophy comes with some extra baggage for the Capitals, who have been the best regular-season team in the NHL over the past decade but have little to show from it by way of playoff success.

This is why Kuznetsov’s contradiction actually makes sense. It’s fun to win things, but a little less fun when what you win is basically a shiny reminder of the monkey on your back.

Securing the best record in the NHL does come with tangible benefits: home ice in the playoffs and the schedule of a No. 1 seed.

“I think we knew what was going on, but it was more about the playoff situation,” Holtby said. “You obviously want to not play either Pittsburgh or Columbus in the first round, but in the end it doesn’t matter. You got to go through good teams, and hopefully this just gives us a little bit more of an advantage.”

Winning also tends to make everything else go smoothly, a byproduct the Capitals have enjoyed for some time now.

“In the morning you come to the practice, you have positive mood. It’s always nice when you win couple games when you’re on top of the league,” Kuznetsov said. “When you practice, you can feel more confident in the group and the guys just smile and enjoy the life. It’s just nice to come every morning.”

Last season, however, it looked as though the Capitals succumbed to some of the pitfalls of success.

They clinched the Presidents’ Trophy on March 28 last year with seven games still remaining in the regular season. Having already clinched the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference titles they had nothing left to play for, and went 2-2-3 down the stretch.

The Capitals then cruised through the first round of the playoffs before losing to the eventual-Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second.

Over the past couple weeks, Capitals coach Barry Trotz has said repeatedly that the Presidents’ Trophy won’t be brought up in the locker room, and followed through Wednesday night.

“We didn’t mention it,” Trotz said. “All I said was, ‘Good work by us.’”

Trotz also said he’s noticed his team playing more physically over the last several games games and that, overall, the players have more focus and urgency than at this time last season.

“It feels like it, that’s for sure,” Trotz said. “Last year, we just went through it. This year we’re competing.”

The Capitals play the Bruins on Saturday and then host the Panthers on Sunday in the final game of the regular season. If they make it out of the first round of the playoffs, the quirks of the postseason format could pit them against the Penguins in the second round yet again.

That matchup that would force one of the league’s best teams to go home before round three so, all things considered, the No. 1 seed only goes so far. If the Capitals want a trophy they can get a bit more excited about, they will just have to go farther.

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