WASHINGTON (AP) — Getting out-of-town score updates during intermission, the Washington Capitals coasted to a 2-0 loss against the Florida Panthers on Sunday night that had more to do with preparing for the playoffs than winning the regular-season finale.
The Capitals rested several regulars, including T.J. Oshie, Matt Niskanen and Justin Williams, and sat injured defenseman John Carlson for a fourth consecutive game to get ready for the postseason. They learned during the game that they’ll face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, the first playoff meeting between the two franchises.
“They have lots of young guys, lots of speed,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “I think it’s gonna be a good series. We just have to play our way and don’t give them obviously freedom and be patient.”
The Leafs’ regulation loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday set up the showdown with the Capitals, who won the Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the most points in the NHL and finished the season 11-2-1. Washington largely went through the motions during its meaningless Game 82 as goaltender Braden Holtby stopped 14 of 15 shots in two periods before giving way to backup Philipp Grubauer.
Captain Derek MacKenzie and Denis Malgin scored for Florida, which got a 38-save shutout from James Reimer in Tom Rowe’s final game as coach. Rowe will not return behind the bench after replacing Gerard Gallant in November.
“It’s not a good feeling, especially with the expectations being as high as they were,” Rowe said. “A very disappointing season, obviously, but just talking to the coaches … to a guy they’re going to be better for it next year. Sometimes you’ve got to take a step backwards.”
The Capitals took another step forward, earning into their ninth playoff appearance in 10 years, most notably with their strong play down the stretch after a four-game skid that Daniel Winnik called a “blessing in disguise.”
“I think that’s what made us play as well as we did down the stretch knowing we had to win games to get the Metro, to get the Presidents’ Trophy,” said Winnik, who was traded from the Maple Leafs at the 2016 trade deadline. “I think going forward in the playoffs this year we’re much more well-prepared for playoff-style hockey.”
Playoff-style hockey against Calder Trophy front-runner Auston Matthews and the rookie-laden Maple Leafs could mean up-and-down games with plenty of chances. Washington won two of the teams’ three meetings this season, one of them in overtime, most recently winning in Toronto on Tuesday when Holtby said the Capitals figured out they could match the Maple Leafs’ speed and skill.
“They’re an improving team,” coach Barry Trotz said. “They’ve got a generational player in Matthews and they’ve got some young guys and they play hard every night and they’ve got speed. … They’re the young, up-and-coming team and they’ve played very, very well and deserve to be in the playoffs.”
Game 1 is expected to be Thursday night in Washington with Game 2 Saturday before the series shifts to Toronto, which Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner expects to present a “bonkers” atmosphere. The Maple Leafs are in the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and face a major challenge against the deep, experienced Capitals.
“They’re big, they’re strong, they’re fast,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “They’ve been beat a number of times in the playoffs, so they’re battle-tested to say the least. And they’re as hungry as any team in the National Hockey League and playing as good.”
The Capitals called up 2009 sixth-round pick Garrett Mitchell to make his NHL debut and also recalled F Chandler Stephenson to play. … Because of injuries, the Panthers dressed eight defensemen and 10 forwards. … Rowe said it will be up to president of hockey operations Dale Tallon to decide if Jaromir Jagr is back next season.
Capitals: Open the playoffs Thursday at home against Toronto.