WASHINGTON (AP) — Craig Smith scored twice and Ryan Johansen had the go-ahead goal late in the third period to help the Nashville Predators beat the Washington Capitals 4-3 Thursday night to clinch first place in the Central Division, the top seed in the Western Conference and the best record in the NHL.
Even though it’ll be Pekka Rinne in net for the Predators when they open the playoffs next week, backup Juuse Saros stopped 28 of the 31 shots and captain Roman Josi scored on the power play to give them their first division title in 19 seasons of existence.
Nashville has a franchise-record 52 victories and will open the playoffs against the second wild card in the West as it tries to return to the Stanley Cup Final. The Predators clinched the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s top record when Boston lost to Florida 3-2 later Thursday. Nashville watched from the arena as the Panthers scored late in the third period to top the Bruins.
Evgeny Kuznetsov scored twice and Alex Ovechkin added his NHL-leading 47th goal of the season for the Metropolitan-champion Capitals, who have nothing left to play for and could still face any of a handful of teams in the first round. Philipp Grubauer made 25 saves and strengthened his case to be Washington’s Game 1 playoff starter over 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby.
A year after making a surprising run to the Cup Final as the eighth seed in the West, the Predators spent this regular season building to give themselves the best opportunity to make another playoff run. More games in Music City is one way they hope to do that after going 9-2 at home in the playoffs in 2017.
“We think home ice trumps everything else,” general manager David Poile said. “That to me is the biggest thing that can separate anybody.”
Wrapping up home ice wasn’t easy.
An early power play allowed the Predators to take a 1-0 lead on Smith’s first goal of the game. Nashville survived an interference call on Josi in the first, but the league’s most penalized team struggled to keep up in the second.
A tripping call on Johansen paved the way for Ovechkin’s 17th power-play goal of the season, and slashing on P.K. Subban led to Kuznetsov’s first of the game to put Washington up 2-1.
The Capitals took the first nine shots of the second period and had 16 to the Predators’ two before Smith cleaned up a loose puck in front for his career-high 25th goal.
Kuznetsov didn’t need another power play to score his second, beating Mattias Ekholm to the net and roofing a backhander over Saros 1:07 into the third. Kuznetsov has seven goals and 11 assists in his past 10 games.
As much as penalties threatened to derail Nashville, Josi scored on the power play 8:19 into the third to tie it. Then, after an initial shot from Viktor Arvidsson, Johansen poked the puck past Grubauer with 5:27 left to put the Predators up for good.
NOTES: Capitals F Alex Chiasson left the game with an undisclosed injury in the second period and did not return. … 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.
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