WASHINGTON - The Rangers flew home Saturday night awash in confidence and caution.
On paper, they ended the 82-game season as the top team in the NHL, and with 53 wins and 113 points, the current club is the best from October to April in 90 years on Broadway.
"We're feeling really good about our game right now," defenseman Dan Girardi said after the 4-2 matinee victory over the Capitals at Verizon Center, "but we're not too confident. We're not too high about ourselves. Being first in the league is great, but that goes away starting Wednesday and Thursday."
The Rangers will play the division rival Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. Pittsburgh beat the Sabres, 2-0, Saturday night to clinch a wild-card spot on the final day of the season.
Game 1 is Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
No practice was scheduled for Sunday, but Alain Vigneault had joked about "sleepless nights" for coaches.
Players took a time-tested approach after the game. "Whatever happened in the past, it's gone. Everything we've done, the Presidents' Trophy, it's gone when the buzzer sounded in the third period," center Derick Brassard said. "We just have to look forward. We're the No. 1 seed and everyone's going to come really hard at us. We have to be at our best."
They were not perfect Saturday against a Capitals squad hoping for home-ice advantage against the Islanders and led by Alex Ovechkin, who scored his league-best 53rd goal, but they were good enough, starting in the first period.
Rookie center Kevin Hayes, who has 17 goals, backhanded a rebound out the air past goalie Braden Holtby at 12:36 and assisted on Brassard's blast from the blue line on a power play at 15:50 to provide a lead that the Rangers never relinquished.
In the second, Martin St. Louis forced a turnover deep in the Caps' zone. Dom Moore scooped up the puck, darted to Holtby's left and threw a high backhander that squeezed between the goalie's shoulder and the crossbar at 2:30 for a 3-0 lead.
James Sheppard's trip of Andre Burakovsky at 5:36 gave the NHL's No. 1 power-play unit an opportunity and they cashed in at 6:31. Ovechkin's league-leading 53rd goal, and 25th with a man advantage, came on a low shot that beat Henrik Lundqvist far side.
But that was pretty much it. "We came out a little bit flat in the first [period] and they capitalized," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "We had some decent looks and we didn't capitalize. At the end of the day, we were chasing the game. They check pretty well and they clogged up the neutral zone and played a real good, solid defensive game after that."
Jesper Fast's empty-netter at 18:06 of the third erased any doubt at 4-1, although rookie Stanislav Galiev made it 4-2 with 28.7 seconds left.
So the next hurdle is the first round. First-year captain Ryan McDonagh looked at the win as a template for the way the Rangers want to play -- hopefully into June, as they did last year.
"We understand now that it's a little bit of a different animal," McDonagh said. "We understand that you've got to raise your level [but] you don't need to flip the switch on the style we play. We've got to continue to play well defensively and use our speed."