Metro title likely for Capitals after handling Rangers

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The Washington Capitals haven’t clinched the Metropolitan Division title, but that might be a mere formality after Monday night.

After opening up a 4-0 lead, the Capitals cruised to a 4-2 win against the New York Rangers. By taking care of business at MSG, the Capitals lead everyone else by at least five points for the top spot:

Teams that still have a mathematical shot at the Metro crown:

1. Capitals: 97 points in 76 games, 42 ROW
2. Penguins: 92 points in 76 GP, 41 ROW
3. Blue Jackets: 89 points in 76 GP, 36 ROW
4. Flyers: 89 points in 76 GP, 36 ROW
5. Devils: 86 points in 75 GP, 34 ROW

Yes, that looks very promising for the Caps, as only the far-off Devils hold a game in hand on them.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Washington is in a strong position to just about close things out by the end of March. They play the Rangers again this week (Wednesday Night Rivalry on NBCSN), then host the Hurricanes on Friday. There’s always the chance for an upset, but on paper, those are solid chances at wins against non-playoff teams.

If that’s not enough, they face the Penguins in Pittsburgh on April 1. Realistically, that would probably be the biggest threat to Washington’s division title hopes if they falter down the stretch.

Some key players chasing individual aims could also be helpful in Washington’s push as well. Alex Ovechkin likely seeks another 50-goal season, not to mention the Maurice Richard Trophy. He collected his 45th goal of 2017-18 on Monday.

Washington should have motivated goalies in net most nights. Philipp Grubauer, who won and looked sharp tonight, is hoping to pad his stats as a pending RFA. Braden Holtby will also aim to get sharp for the playoffs, assuming he can hold off Grubauer. The situation lowers the odds of their netminders sleepwalking into losses, if nothing else.

Finally, John Carlson has a lot of money to gain with a strong contract year.

While the Caps took their feet off the accelerator down the stretch, there were times that they looked downright dominant in chasing Alexandar Georgiev.

That 4-0 first period was rough for the Rangers, yet it behooves them to lose at this point, and seeing some young players show promise is a boost. As this post notes, Lias Andersson scored in his NHL debut while Filip Chytil collected his first NHL assist.

The Capitals didn’t need to settle for such moral victories, and if this pace continues, their biggest questions won’t be about whether they can win another division title. Instead, it will be about resting key players versus giving them opportunities to chase individual awards.

Not a bad problem to have, especially for a team that was supposed to slide more dramatically this season.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.