SUNRISE, Fla. — Winning a division title guarantees you nothing in the NHL.
You get home ice in the Stanley Cup playoffs for a least one round. You get some satisfaction over beating your biggest rivals. You get a banner that no one really wants to look at if things go south in the postseason.
But any player who says it doesn’t matter is lying. The Capitals have a chance to win their fourth consecutive Metropolitan Division title tonight against the Florida Panthers (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington).
Washington will need help tonight. The New York Islanders have to lose to the Toronto Maple Leafs in regulation in what should be an emotional home game. But make no mistake: The Capitals want to win it again – even if they know it won’t help much next week when the playoffs start.
The night won’t quite be as memorable as 2008 when the Panthers and Capitals also met with a division title on the line. That time at Capital One Arena, Washington needed a win to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in five years. A long rebuilding phase would finally be over. But if they lost that night, the final game of the regular season, they would have missed the postseason entirely. It was a win-or-go-home game.
Washington won that night and started its long, painful journey to a 2018 Stanley Cup. No one knew what was in store then, however. Tomas Fleischmann, Sergei Fedorov and, finally, Alexander Semin scored 2:21 into the third period for the Capitals in a 3-1 victory before a red sea of fans in the sellout crowd. The crowd started “M-V-P!” chants for Alex Ovechkin, who didn’t score that night, but had a career-high 65 goals that year. It remains the highest total in the past 24 years.
Emotions won’t get that high tonight. The Capitals expect to be here now. But it will match a franchise record for consecutive division titles. And it will matter even if they say it doesn’t.
Here are a few other reasons to watch:
Alex Ovechkin already topped 50 goals with his two Saturday against Tampa Bay. Now he tries to hold on for an eighth Rocket Richard Trophy. That goes to the player who leads the league in goals. Ovechkin has won it seven times. He has 51 goals now and is four up on Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl (47) and six on Toronto’s John Tavares (45). All three players have four games left. The Rocket Richard has only been awarded since 1999, but if you add up the total number of times a player has led the NHL in goals over the past 100 years, Ovechkin is tied with Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Hull with seven each.
Pheonix Copley gets the start tonight in place of Braden Holtby, who has had a heavy workload in stressful games lately. Copley last played March 19 against the New Jersey Devils. He stopped 20 of 21 shots in a 3-1 win. In fact, Washington has won Copley’s past six starts. He has a .913 save percentage in those games.
Don’t rub your eyes. Every Caps player will be on the ice tonight except injured defenseman Michal Kempny. Maybe the bug that has hit the locker room hard recently has abated? Expect some more experimenting from coach Todd Reirden. But Washington will start with a second line of Carl Hagelin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie with Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller and Brett Connolly on the third line. Travis Boyd is out and Chandler Stephenson joins Nic Dowd and Andre Burakovsky.
With only three games to go there are plenty of stats to watch tonight. Ovechkin is two points away from his first 90-point season since 2009-10. Defenseman John Carlson is one point away from becoming the fourth Capitals defenseman to record a 70-point season. T.J. Oshie got to the 25-goal mark with two on Saturday. Jakub Vrana (23) can do the same over the final three games. Tom Wilson and Brett Connolly (22) need three each to get there. Nicklas Backstrom needs four (21) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (20) needs five.
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