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Pro Hockey: Capitals get defending champs in playoffs

BY ZAC BOYER

NEW YORK—As it turns out, the Washington Capitals won’t end up playing the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Consider the Rangers relieved.

Two goals in the first 2:18 carried the Capitals in one of their most dominant performances in recent weeks, and the team will avoid New York in at least the early round of the playoffs following a 4–1 victory over the Eastern Conference’s top seed on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

“We wanted to come in and play a good hockey game,” center Brooks Laich said. “This time of year, you don’t ever want to let anybody think that they can beat you, and you certainly don’t want to have that losing feeling, so I don’t know if it’s a statement game. It’s just a team continuing to play well.”

The win, coupled with Florida’s defeat of visiting Carolina, means the Capitals will miss out on clinching their fifth consecutive Southeast Division title. But with Ottawa stumbling at New Jersey, Washington will take the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference and open the playoffs in Boston.

The relief of having clinched a spot in the postseason carried the Capitals (42–32–8), who somehow looked much more relaxed and focused early than they have during their prolonged quest. New York (51–24–7), for its part, didn’t lay down against Washington; with a home victory, the team would have clinched the Presidents’ Trophy for only the third time in its history—a goal coach John Tortorella said was paramount before the game.

Alex Ovechkin scored his 38th goal after only 32 seconds, Mathieu Perreault added another 2:18 into the first period and John Carlson scored on a deflected shot on the power play with 1:47 remaining to build a 3–0 first-period lead.

Nicklas Backstrom, who last scored against Columbus on Dec. 30 and then missed 40 games because of a concussion, had his 14th just shy of six minutes into the second period. And rookie Braden Holtby had 35 saves, allowing only a second-period goal on a rebound by Brian Boyle.

Holtby, for his part, was magnificent. He made two spectacular saves on Marian Gaborik, the Rangers’ scoring leader who entered third in the NHL with 41 goals. Then, on a shorthanded opportunity midway through the third period, he stopped a charging Carl Hagelin before, moments later, charging and poke-checking the puck away from Brandon Prust on an ensuing breakaway opportunity.

“You have to be there and answer the bell,” said Holtby, the 22-year-old rookie who, because of injuries, is likely to be the Capitals’ starting goaltender at least early in the postseason. “You never want to give up chances, especially two in the same kill that late in the game. That’s something we’ll work on. But at the same time that’s my job to make up for those mistakes and today I did it.”

Head coach Dale Hunter offered no update on Michal Neuvirth, calling the goaltender who injured his left leg in the 4–2 victory over Florida at Verizon Center on Thursday “day to day” when asked before the game. Tomas Vokoun, the team’s primary goalie, has missed 10 of his last 11 games because of a groin injury, and the team recalled journeyman Dany Sabourin from Hershey to serve as Holtby’s backup before the game.

“He’s a confident kid,” Hunter said after the game. “He’s a winner. He wants to play hard for us, and tonight, he played well. Got the puck out of our end a lot of times by shooting it, so it’s a credit to him.”

Carlson’s goal, his first since Feb. 22 at Ottawa and third in four games against the Rangers, snapped an 0-for-15 skid on the power play that dated back through their last five games. Backstrom also played a much more well-rounded game, shaking off the rust and hesitancy that lingered from the layoff, first to set up Carlson’s goal but also to add his own when he beat Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who faced only 17 shots, high and stick-side.

The playoff schedule won’t be announced until today, and Hunter didn’t want to comment on the prospect of playing Boston until Florida’s eventual victory was certain.

Though the Capitals won’t have to face New York until later in the playoffs, they did fare well against the Bruins as well, winning three of four against the defending Stanley Cup champions and both on the road.

“A very good team,” Laich said. “A lot of respect for them. They play both ends of the ice probably as well as anybody. They’re big. Their defense is solid. They’ve got three, even four lines that can score. A very good hockey team [and] a very tough opponent.”

Zac Boyer: 540/374-5440

zboyer@freelancestar.com

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