Now I Can Breathe Again: Revisiting Caps-Bruins
I feel like I’ve aged 10 years watching the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins play seven insanely fought games.
After Joel Ward’s series-winning goal in overtime of Game 7, I was literally a quivering mass trying to send out Twitter updates and dream up something to write about. I promised myself I wouldn’t write about this series until it was over and now that it is, I echo the immortal words of Robert Redford in “The Candidate,” “What do we do now?”
I still can’t believe the Caps pulled this off. To be a fan of the Washington Capitals is to expect disappointment in the most crushing manner possible. I remember getting an email, after I’d buried the team when they laid an egg to Buffalo in a must-win game, with a reader saying he expected to be in the grave before the Caps ever won the Stanley Cup. Can’t say I disagreed with him.
Those of us who have followed this team since the 80s have grown beyond cynical when it comes to the Caps in the playoffs, more to the point of wondering, “How are they gonna screw up this time?” The newer generation, “Rock The Red” fans don’t have this sort of cynicism and for that I admire them.
And yet here we are, with a Capitals team that did the down and dirty work required to win in the playoffs, that got big goals from unlikely sources, that got some breaks go their way and got the hot goaltender on their side. This current Caps team is playing with house money at this point; anything they do now is gravy. How do you top winning the closest series in the history of hockey?
To really sum up this series, I’m afraid I’ll need to talk in bulletpoints.
--- As a fan, I really didn’t think the Caps had a chance going into this series until after they lost Game 1 in overtime. I know there really isn’t such a thing as a “good” loss in the playoffs, or a moral victory, but the 1-0 loss in Game 1 was as close as you’ll come to a “good” loss.
Here’s how I knew the Caps could make this a series: 1) rookie goalie Braden Holtby showed that the stage wasn’t too big for him and 2) when the Bruins tried to impose their will physically, the Caps fought back.
You see, the Bruins are a classic bully team, and I say that with all respect. The B’s test you, they poke, they prod, they hit you, they punch you in the face to see if you’ll hit back. Weak teams – such as the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks – don’t hit back and the Bruins eat them for lunch.
Heading into this series, you knew a moment would come in Game 1 where the Bruins were gonna test the Caps and see if they were weak sauce. That moment came when Bruins superpest Brad Marchand knocked down Holtby after the whistle. This was the test. Right away, Caps defenseman John Carlson jumped in and gave Marchand a few whacks in the face, hitting Marchand just enough to send the message, but not doing anything to get a penalty.
The Caps passed the test, and Marchand spent most of the rest of the series futilely chirping and taking dives to try to draw penalties.
---The turning point in the series for me was Game 4. At that point, the Bruins were up 2-1 in games and had managed to get under the Caps’ skin in Game 3.
In that game, Milan Lucic, the Bruins massive winger, had been running around punching various Caps players and somehow managed to take a Caps player off to the box with him. Marchand was at his superpesty best, drawing stick fouls against Jason Chimera and Nicklas Backstrom.
At the end of the game, Backstrom, who thought Boston was targeting his head (Backstrom missed much of the season with concussion problems) lost his cool and got his stick in the face of Rich Peverley, getting himself a match penalty and automatic suspension.
In addition, Holtby had his first shaky game of the series, letting in a softie to Peverley, giving Caps fans uneasy memories of Semyon Varlamov’s meltdown against Pittsburgh in 2009.
And then Bruins play-by-play man and all around blowhard Jack Edwards ran his mouth to a Boston radio station calling Holtby “a pretty good AHL goalie,” and that the Caps were beginning to crack under the Bruins pressure. Now, I occasionally enjoy Edwards’ homer routine as much as the next guy, but this was ridiculous even for him.
I don’t know if the Caps players read that stuff, but needless to say, Holtby put together one of the best goaltending performances in team history in Game 4, stopping 44 shots in a 2-1 win. Wonder if Jack still thinks he’s AHL quality?
--- For the record, national commentators may be surprised at his performance in outdueling Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas, but most Caps fans, if nothing else, knew he could be this good. The question was whether he would actually deliver. But anyone that saw Holtby play well in a brief call-up last season knew the kid could play. He has a calm, easy demeanor back there. He doesn’t get rattled. Every time the Bruins thought they had a way to beat him, Holtby would close the door.
Coach Dale Hunter’s defensive shell system, designed to keep the shots to the outside, also helped. You can tell when Holtby is really on by his rebound control, which was flawless in Game 4. The only times he got in trouble in this series (second half of Game 3, second period of Game 7) came when Holtby had trouble hauling in rebounds.
--- I never would have suspected that the two biggest beneficiaries of the November coaching change from Bruce Boudreau to Hunter would be Alex Semin and Jay Beagle.
Semin, long criticized for previous playoff struggles, really found a chemistry with the two Swedes, Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. With Alex Ovechkin neutralized by the combination of Dennis Seidenberg and Zdeno Chara and Hunter’s curious line management, somebody had to step up and this line did, with Semin potting three goals and Backstrom getting the double OT winner in Game 2.
Beagle on the other hand was thought of as a quadruple-A player: too good for the minors, not good enough for regular NHL work. Under Boudreau, Beagle’s most notable accomplishment was getting his ass kicked in a fight with Pittsburgh goon Arron Asham.
Under Hunter however, Beagle has been reborn as a faceoff specialist and penalty-killing menace. Along with Matt Hendricks and Chimera, Beagle’s line was given the primary checking assignment against the Bruins top line.
It was largely through Beagle’s efforts that the Bruins biggest guns – Lucic, Marchand, Tyler Seguin, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron – were collectively held to four goals, including none for Lucic and Bergeron. Thanks to Beagle’s superb penalty-killing, the Bruins went a miserable 2-for-23 with the extra man.
--- This is, without a doubt, the most resilient Caps team I’ve ever seen. Hell, in this very space I’ve given them up for dead twice. And yet, they keep coming back. This team has overcome a coaching change, a system change, bad losses, injuries to their top two goalies just before the playoffs and their coach’s curious line management.
Much of the credit for the resilience must go to Hunter, who was a feisty SOB as a player and never died easy. The team, once a group of carefree party animals, has become a team that plays tougher,does the little things, fights back and doesn’t give up. This is a Caps team with heart and guts. Previous, flashier versions of the Caps probably would not have been able to pull this off. Even before their Game 7 win, this team made you proud to be a fan with their effort in this series.
--- Now about that roster management. Needless to say, Hunter caused plenty of head-scratching with the way he used his lineup. Much of the attention was focused on his cutting of Ovechkin’s minutes, but what about the decision to use fourth-line center Keith Aucoin on the power play instead of Semin, who had Bruins fans terrified whenever he touched the puck?
The Ovechkin thing I can at least see, since many of the times Hunter glued him to the bench was when the Caps were leading in the 3rd period and needed defensive-minded players on the ice, considering Ovi isn’t exactly Selke Award material out there. I know it had to bother Ovi to not be out there, all great players want to be out there when the game is on the line, but as long as the Caps are winning, it won’t be an issue.
I actually applauded the decision to remove defenseman Jeff Schultz in favor of the more physical John Erskine. After Game 3’s shenanigans, the Caps needed someone out there who could make the Bruins accountable. But why go back to Schultz for Game 7?
And why in the world was Dennis Wideman, who was absolutely brutal in this series, taking significant minutes late in Game 6 over Mike Green?
--- I am thankful to not have to see Chara, Seidenberg or Seguin again this year. There’s never been a player in the history of the sport quite like Chara, a 6’9 behemoth with a redwood for a hockey stick and a nasty demeanor.
Seidenberg might be the most underrated defenseman in the game and was probably the Bruins best player. His blocked shot, without a stick no less, on Ovechkin late in Game 7 when Ovi had a wide open net was just an amazing play.
By the end of this series, Seguin was the Grim Reaper in a black and gold jersey. When Game 7 slipped into overtime, I was absolutely terrified of him. Holding this kid to only two goals was a minor miracle.
--- The fact that Ward and Mike Knuble combined for the series-winning goal just shows that you never know with playoff hockey. Knuble looked like he was ready for the glue farm this year, often ending up a healthy scratch late in the season and through the first three games of this series. If Backstrom doesn’t get that match penalty in Game 3 we probably don’t see Knuble enter at all.
Ward had spent much of this season being derided as a horrible waste of money after General Manager George McPhee gave him a 4-year, $12 million contract based off his strong playoffs last year for Nashville. Ward was healthy scratched nine times this year and had lost confidence in himself.
And yet, once Hunter put Ward and Knuble together with Aucoin, they became a lethal, fourth-line forechecking machine. The final goal was a classic grinders play: crash the net and bury the loose change.
--- By the way, I completely disagree with the calls for goalie interference on Knuble on Ward’s goal. I’ve watched the game-winner 1,200 times already (and enjoyed it every time) and personally, I don’t think that gets called in a December game against Columbus, much less an overtime of Game 7.
Any contact Knuble made with Thomas was purely incidental. He stops just short of Thomas and you can see him swiping for the rebound. The slow motion replay shows Thomas sticking his glove hand out and grabbing at Knuble’s legs: was Thomas trying to draw a call there? If he was, he cost himself by focusing on Knuble and not the puck. If not, and Knuble was just blocking his vision, what’s wrong with that?
--- Even if it was a goalie interference that wasn’t called, it was certainly a karmic payback for the late power play the Bruins got late in regulation on a sorta ticky-tack holding call on Chimera. And if not that, it was payback from the hockey gods for the goal Sami Kapanen scored in Game 7 in 2008 when Philly’s Patrick Thoresen shoved Shaone Morrison into Christobal Huet, leading to a Flyers goal.
--- Who do I hope the Caps play in Round 2? Don’t care at this point. Like I said, they’re playing with house money at this point. What do we do next? Keep winning I say.