Banner night: Preds beat Caps to clinch NHL’s best record
WASHINGTON (AP) — Nashville Predators players stood around the locker room after beating the Washington Capitals 4-3, huddled around cellphones watching and rooting for more franchise history.
Seconds after the Boston Bruins lost to the Florida Panthers in regulation on Thursday night, Mattias Ekholm yelled out, “Yeah boys!” as teammates high-fived to celebrate the first Presidents’ Trophy in the team’s 19-year history.
A year after the Predators made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, they’ve clinched home ice throughout the playoffs as the top team in the NHL during the regular season.
The road to the Cup now runs through Nashville.
“It’s a pretty good night for us,” captain Roman Josi said. “Obviously the big goal for every team is to win the Stanley Cup, but you can’t win the Stanley Cup right now. It was something we took a lot of pride in, and I think it’s a big accomplishment for us.”
Josi, who scored a power-play goal in the clincher, said he and fellow Predators players looked at the rafters of other buildings this season and wanted to earn more than just the one “Western Conference Champions 2016-17” banner that currently hangs in Bridgestone Arena.
They accomplished that in Washington thanks to two goals from Craig Smith, a game-winner from Ryan Johansen and 29 saves from backup goaltender Juuse Saros, setting a franchise record with 52 wins in the process.
“It’s always just been about home ice and trying to stay in our building, give ourselves the best chance to be successful in the playoffs,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “With that, those things happen. You end up winning a division, a conference and first place in the league.”
David Poile, who has been general manager since the franchise’s inception, shook hands and congratulated each player as he walked out of the locker room.
While Laviolette and his staff watched the end of the Bruins-Panthers game in the coaches’ office and players took it in on hockey operations manager Brandon Walker’s phone, Poile watched alone from the concourse on one of the prouder nights in Predators history.
“We all have goals. That was part of it,” Poile said. “It feels real good. When we get to a week from now and we start the playoffs, we’ll be moving on to something else, but I’m very proud of our franchise. This is the first time we’ve done it and it means a lot and I’m proud of everybody, all the effort that was put in all year.”
It was almost poetic that the Predators won the Presidents’ Trophy by beating the Capitals, who won it the past two seasons and three times since 2010.
Days after the five-year anniversary of his now-infamous trade from Washington to Nashville, star winger Filip Forsberg remarked: “We’ve seen especially here (in Washington) that the trophy doesn’t mean that much going forward. But I think just the home ice is going to be huge.”
The Metropolitan Division-champion Capitals, who have home ice through at least the first two rounds, got two goals from Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin’s league-leading 47th of the season and 25 saves from Philipp Grubauer in the loss.
Washington could still face New Jersey, Philadelphia, Columbus or back-to-back defending Cup-champion Pittsburgh in the first round.
“I like the way we’re playing,” said coach Barry Trotz, who was in Nashville for that franchise’s first 15 seasons and has Washington in the playoffs for the fourth time in four years. “We’re playing with lots of speed, we’re playing with lots of pace, and that was a good test.”
The Predators know there are more tests upcoming, this time as the Cup favorite that won’t fly under the radar. But after going 9-2 at home on their run to the final a year ago, they assured themselves of more playoff hockey in Music City than on the road.
“We learned what it was like to play at home in the playoffs,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “To have the home ice is huge for our team.”
NOTES: Smith’s two goals gave him a career-high 25. ... Johansen scored the go-ahead goal with 5:27 left. ... Kuznetsov has seven goals and 11 assists in his past 10 games. ... Capitals F Alex Chiasson left the game with an illness. ... Ovechkin was honored before the game for playing in 1,000 NHL regular-season games. In addition to the traditional silver stick and Tiffany crystal from the team and league, Ovechkin’s teammates got him and his wife a trip to Spain, presidential suite tickets to see FC Barcelona and a Lionel Messi jersey. ... Rookie Eeli Tolvanen was a healthy scratch for the Predators after playing three games in a row.
Predators: Return home after three-game road trip to face the Columbus Blue Jackets in each team’s season finale Saturday.
Capitals: Host the New Jersey Devils on Saturday in a potential playoff preview.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey