- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2019

It is far from the most important NHL banner hanging in Capital One Arena — the one that bears the image of the Stanley Cup holds that honor.

But the Washington Capitals will need to make room on their crowded “Metropolitan Division Champions” banner to stitch on yet another season.

The Capitals clinched the division title for the fourth straight year Thursday by beating the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 at home, ensuring themselves a more favorable first-round matchup in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Because they will finish with a lower record than the other Eastern Conference division champ, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Capitals (48-25-8, 104 points) will face the No. 1 wild card team in the first round, which begins next Wednesday and Thursday. As of Thursday night, Washington will most likely draw the Carolina Hurricanes or the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Capitals play their season finale Saturday against the New York Islanders. That game could have decided the Metro champion if the circumstances fell a different way, but now it will serve as a tune-up instead, doing nothing to help or hurt Washington’s playoff standing.

Washington played a physical game, blocking 19 shot attempts and landing 37 hits that had such Canadiens as Andrew Shaw and Joel Armia spilling to the ice. The Capitals got their offense from the bottom two forward lines, with goals by Lars Eller and Nic Dowd. Braden Holtby saved 33 shots.

That physicality and depth scoring were two signs of a playoff-ready team.

“You look at us getting that outcome, where do our goals come from? They come from our third and fourth line, they come from having solid goaltending,” coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s what it takes and that’s what’s going to be a strong reason why we can continue to play as long as possible this year.”

Winning a division title was one of the team’s goals, John Carlson said, though hardly the most important one. But Eller felt it meant something special to clinch it for the fourth year in a row.

“It definitely ranks maybe even sweeter than some of the other years because I think we really had to work for it this year,” Eller said. “We had to overcome suspensions, injuries, a lot of adversity — maybe more than certain other years where things were coming a little bit easier, even though nothing comes easy.”

Washington and Montreal traded goals late in the first period. Eller was first, the beneficiary of a play set up by linemates Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly. Hagelin chased a puck in the corner and dug it out to Connolly, who centered it for Eller — for his fourth goal against his old team in three meetings this year.

“I think the puck’s just been finding me,” Eller said with a laugh. “I seem to convert a little bit better my chances against them this year. I think we’ve been getting good looks on our line for a while. It’s just about converting. Feels good to do it against your old team, of course.”

But soon after, Nicklas Backstrom was called for high sticking and the Canadiens’ Shea Weber scored a power-play goal before the game clock ran out.

The tie didn’t last long into the middle frame. Dowd, the Capitals’ fourth-line center, popped in his eighth goal of the season three minutes in, coming off an assist by Andre Burakovsky from the half-wall.

Despite a lack of scoring, the third period provided its share of action and Washington chances. Alex Ovechkin fed a perfect centering pass to Backstrom for a shot; Carlson unleashed a slapshot a few minutes later that Evgeny Kuznetsov prematurely celebrated as a goal. But Carey Price, Montreal’s top-notch goalie, saved them both.

Yet the Canadiens, who are fighting for their lives in the wild card race with Carolina and Columbus, could not get much else going besides good goaltending. The Capitals held on to the narrow win after Montreal pulled Price for a 6-on-5 chance at the end of the game.

In the final 22 days of the regular season, the Capitals have had to play six games against teams already assured a playoff spot (counting the Islanders this Saturday) and two more games against teams who were in the hunt at the time, like Montreal.

Reirden deadpanned that in the years before winning the Stanley Cup, when they were often the best regular season team in the NHL, coasting in the final weeks against inferior opponents wasn’t “a very successful formula” for them.

“This is much better, I think, for our team, having played some more difficult opponents that are trying to get into the playoffs, future opponents, just within the last couple weeks,” the coach said. “That’s prepared us and it’s allowed us to stay focused on the task at hand, which is trying to improve our team.”

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