The New York Rangers and Washington Capitals face off in Saturday night’s season finale at Madison Square Garden, and could be back there again next week to meet in the first round of the playoffs for a second straight year.
While the Rangers are still playing for the Presidents’ Trophy, the Capitals have more at stake and their goalie situation is suddenly a big concern.
Washington (41-32-8) clinched a playoff berth with Thursday’s 4-2 win over Florida, coupled with Philadelphia beating Buffalo to eliminate the Sabres from contention. Alex Ovechkin scored his team-leading 37th goal for the Capitals, who won for the third time in four games since a devastating 5-1 home loss to Buffalo on March 27.
“To learn to win in these big games it’s going to benefit us in the playoffs,” forward Jay Beagle said. “These last two weeks we’ve been grinding out these wins and we’ve got to carry it over to the playoffs.”
The Capitals are in eighth place and will stay there with a loss to the Eastern Conference champion Rangers (51-23-7). They can, however, overtake the Panthers to earn their fifth straight Southeast Division crown - and the East’s No. 3 seed - with a win and a Florida regulation loss. The Panthers host lowly Carolina on Saturday night.
Washington also could move into seventh place if it wins while Ottawa loses in regulation at New Jersey.
The Rangers already have secured home-ice advantage throughout the East playoffs, and a win Saturday would guarantee their first Presidents’ Trophy since the 1993-94 Stanley Cup-winning team.
Last season, it was New York which was the eighth seed and Washington which finished atop the East before opening the playoffs by ousting the Rangers in five games. New York has won two of three meetings this season.
While there are several playoff scenarios for the Capitals, their biggest focus is the health of their goaltenders.
Michal Neuvirth was hurt in the second period Thursday when the Panthers’ Marco Strum fell on his left leg. Neuvirth, who has appeared in the last five games, couldn’t put any weight on his left skate as Ovechkin and Karl Alzner helped him to the bench.
Coach Dale Hunter said Neuvirth is “day-to-day.”
Holtby made his sixth appearance of the season Thursday and stopped 12 of 14 shots. It was his first action since being pulled after yielding three goals on 18 shots in just over one period of work in last week’s loss to Buffalo.
The Rangers had some fears about their goalie situation when Henrik Lundqvist had a swollen right forearm after Tuesday’s victory over the Flyers, but he said during Thursday morning’s skate that his arm was OK. He was given the night off as his team faced Pittsburgh, not playing for the first time in 11 games, but said he could have started if the matchup was crucial.
Lundqvist, whose 39 wins and 1.93 GAA are career bests, has posted a 1.25 GAA and two shutouts in winning his last four starts against Washington.
New York’s biggest concern now may be the health of center Derek Stepan, who suffered a knee-to-knee hit from Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik in Thursday’s 5-2 loss. Stepan, fourth on the Rangers in goals (17) and points (51), remained on the bench after the play.
“It’s a cheap, dirty hit,” coach John Tortorella said. “I wonder what would happen if we did it to their two whining stars over there. … It’s one of the most arrogant organizations in the league.”
New York and Pittsburgh could possibly meet in the conference semifinals.