Capitals clinch division with win over Canadiens

April 5, 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. That possible opponent, as of Thursday night, will most likely be 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, landing more than 35 hits that had opponents like 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.

The teams 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 to feed Eller his fourth goal against his old team in three meetings this year.

But on the next shift, Nicklas Backstrom was called for high sticking and Shea Weber scored a power-play goal before the game clock ran out.

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

Despite a lack of actual scoring, the third period provided its share of action and Washington chances. Alex Ovechkin fed a perfect centering pass to Backstrom for a shot; John 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 tried pulling Price for a 6-on-5 chance.