BOSTON — The camera caught Justin Williams chuckling on the bench, a casual reaction to seeing a goal overturned because he was ruled to have interfered with Bruins goaltender Anton Khudobin.
If the Capitals bench disliked the call, they didn’t let that fluster them. Less than two minutes later, Williams finished a tic-tac-toe passing play for a goal that wasn’t debatable. Against a team Washington could face in the first round when the playoffs start next week, the Capitals carried themselves with the confidence that they were a better team, and the result — a 3-1 win at TD Garden — bore that out.
That the Capitals beat the Bruins in their regular-season finale improves the chances the teams will play each other in a first-round series. Entering the weekend, Boston had just a two-point lead on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who still had two games to play while the Bruins had just one.
Saturday’s game was a glimpse of what a playoff matchup between them would look like, physical and bruising.
Washington took a lead less than five minutes into the game when Marcus Johansson scored on a backhander set up by Williams. The Bruins responded with a goal from Colin Miller 15:13 into the second period to tie it, but that seemed to spark the Capitals to pull away. Less than a minute later, center Nicklas Backstrom patiently set up Kevin Shattenkirk, who gave the Capitals a lead. Shattenkirk seemed to score again 82 seconds later, but the Bruins successfully challenged there was goaltender interference by Williams.
Jockeying for position in front of the net with defenseman John-Michael Liles, Williams’s leg made contact with Khudobin, but it appeared Williams might have been pushed into the goaltender by Liles. Khudobin’s reaction was perhaps unnecessarily animated.
In a show of poise that Washington will need in the postseason, Williams got the goal back a few minutes later.
The Capitals clinched all that’s left to clinch with their win over the Rangers on Wednesday, guaranteeing home ice throughout the postseason with a second straight Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best record. But Coach Barry Trotz’s message to the team before its last two games was to “finish strong.” Against the Bruins, Washington also had an opportunity to send a message.
“This is a possible opponent in the playoffs,” Trotz said before the game. “We don’t know how it’s going to all play out, but it could be a possibility. So, you just want to make sure that we’re playing the right way so that they’ll have nothing on us, if we end up meeting each other. We just want to play strong and play well and hopefully get the job done.”
Defenseman John Carlson (lower-body injury) and forward Brett Connolly (illness) didn’t make the trip to Boston, but they both skated at the team’s practice facility on Saturday and it’s possible they both play in the Capitals’ season finale against Florida on Sunday. The Bruins have already clinched a playoff berth, and they were without winger Brad Marchand (39 goals) after he was handed a two-game suspension for spearing.
Boston lost top-four defenseman Torey Krug to a lower-body injury in the Bruins’ last game against Ottawa. Another top-four defenseman went down in the first period when Washington forward Alex Ovechkin hit Brandon Carlo in an awkward position in the corner. Carlo had to be helped off the ice, and he didn’t return. No penalty was called on the hit.
The game had taken on a physical nature even before that play. Earlier in the first period, Kevan Miller had a hard hit on Andre Burakovsky against the boards, and Washington’s Tom Wilson retaliated on the next shift with a big hit on Miller behind the net. In the second period, Wilson collided with Colin Miller, and forward Jay Beagle reacted by boarding Miller, which then resulted in a scrum and multiple penalties.
But the Capitals didn’t look uncomfortable in that kind of an atmosphere. Saturday’s game showed they would be victorious in it.