WASHINGTON — There were no championship hats or puddles of beer, no dips in fountains or questionable tattoos.
Get a hold of yourself, it was just a Metropolitan Division title after all. The Capitals have done bigger, more important things. After the heady, Stanley Cup days of last spring and summer, it will take more than this to get the celebration rolling again.
But don’t render the Metro title meaningless, either, after Washington beat the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 at Capital One Arena to clinch it. It is the fourth time in a row it has won the Metro, a quality division that has produced the past three Stanley Cup champions.
Take it for granted at your peril. The Capitals won four division titles in a row just one other time in franchise history dating to 1974-75. And that came in the old, maligned Southeast Division from 2008-2011 when the division was just five teams and the competition limited.
Unlike 2016 and 2017, when the Metro was clinched early, this was more like 2018 when goalie struggles, a bad start and a February swoon made it touch-and-go well into March. It took until the second-to-last game to get there this time.
“It definitely ranks maybe even sweeter than some of the other years because I think we really had to work for it this year,” center Lars 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.”
The Capitals will learn that the hard way again during the Stanley Cup playoffs. They still don’t know their opponent – it could be any one of Pittsburgh, Carolina or Columbus. But it will definitely be a Metro rival. And given their history with the Penguins, last year’s epic first-round clash with Columbus and a rejuvenated Hurricanes team in the postseason for the first time since 2009, advancing isn’t a given for the defending champs.
“We have another level for sure,” coach Todd Reirden said. “We wanted to win and secure home ice and all those things, but we have another level to take our game to and we will. That's just where things are at and we're going to meet [Friday] and discuss how we can continue to grow and get better. That's what's exciting about this team is they're still eager to learn and try to figure out ways to win.”
Washington will host its first-round Stanley Cup playoff series next week and would host again if it advances, but this is also a team that clinched all four series last spring on the road. They appreciate the home crowd, but it doesn’t really matter in the NHL. The Capitals have lost too many Game Sevens at home to think that way.
“It shows consistency but it’s not a huge thing for us,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “I think it’s more important that we played a good playoff-style game tonight against a team that was really desperate. So, it’s fun to get back to hockey like that.”
And that is where this really matters. The Capitals laid an egg against the Florida Panthers on Monday in a game they trailed 4-0 to a team that was already eliminated. But all in all they have been a better, more stable team since ending a seven-game 0-5-2 winless streak heading into the NHL All-Star break.
Washington is 21-8-2 since returning from a needed mental break. There were still bumps in that road, but they did not lose consecutive games in regulation and with the division lead thinning they came up with big wins against Carolina twice and took three points from Tampa Bay, the Cup favorite and Presidents’ Trophy winner, in three games this month.
Montreal was a desperate team, tied for the final Eastern Conference playoff berth in points, but out on the tiebreaker with just two games to go. The Canadiens threw all they had at Washington, which handled the pressure like champions do. The 2-1 lead held through most of the second and third periods.
“We were forced to play smart with the puck throughout the third period and not take chances,” said Eller, who scored yet another goal against his former team. “Like you’re going to be doing in the playoffs probably. It wasn’t an easy win. It’s good to go through that rather than winning games with three or four [goals]. There’s good lessons to be had from that.”
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
- Prospect Report: Chase Priskie is heading to free agency and it's nobody's fault
- Caps Mailbag: Looking at the playoff lineup
- NHL Power Rankings: Where the Caps stand at the end of the season