The Washington Capitals were not expected to make the postseason, let alone defeat the defending champion Boston Bruins in the playoffs. The Caps snuck into the postseason with the seventh seed despite questionable team effort all regular season. However, this misperceived lack of effort in reality has proven to amount to Coach Dale Hunter saving the legs of the Caps to be able to excel in playoff hockey.
Under previous head coach Bruce Boudreau who was fired in the middle of this season, the Caps seized consecutive number one seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Boudreau’s run-and-gun, scoring first style generated excellent and fun-to-watch hockey in the regular season. But by the time the playoff intensity dialed up the heat, Washington’s worn out legs could not fight through the fire. Note the Tampa Bay series when the Caps were swept by a more energetic Lightning that played as their nickname suggests.
In this year’s opening round, the Caps pushed the defending champions to the brink, driving the game one into a scoreless overtime. The tie was broken by Boston center Chris Kelly, whose shot from inside the blue line just eluded rookie goaltender Braden Holtby.
Neither team was able to generate much offense all night which set the tone for the type of physical defensive series it would turn out to be. Washington’s rookie Braden Holtby and Boston’s veteran Tim Thomas played exceptionally, although Thomas only faced 17 shots compared to Holtby’s 33. The lack of shots for the Capitals was probably the single largest factor for a Bruin victory.
Washington pulled even with Boston with a 2-1 win in double overtime for game 2. Center Nicklas Backstrom, who has missed over 3 months of play due to a concussion, provided the winning score at 2:56 in the second extra period. Marcus Johansson assisted Backstrom beautifully after he hustled down the puck off of a faceoff, flipping the puck to a waiting Backstrom in sniping position.
Boston was able to regain the series lead after a 4-3 win in DC. The game featured much more penalties and chippiness from the previous set of matchups, as 16 penalties were called. The math of Boston’s victory did not favor the Caps, as the Bruins are 19-6 when leading a best-of-seven series two games to one. These numbers set up a must-win for the Caps in game 4.
Game 3 was a “horse of a different color” from the opening pair of contests. While games 1 and 2 were tightly fought battles of attrition with minimal offensive production, both the Caps and Bruins explode with a total of seven goals. Boston was able to best the home-ice team by a stinger from captain and 6’9” giant Zdeno Chara.
Braden Holtby led the Caps to a gutsy 2-1victory at home. Holtby saved an astounding 44 shots in the game, proving to be just enough effort for his team to put two pucks behind Boston’s Tim Thomas. The 22 year old rookie Holtby has more than stood his ground between the pipes so far these playoffs. His .953 save percentage was second best out of all goalies in the NHL at this point in the series. If Holtby can continue to type of play he showed in game 6, his heroics will end up being the story of the playoffs.
Troy Brouwer was the hero of game 5 with his breakaway power play goal to break a 3-3 tie with 1:27 left in the third period.
Confidence was shaken moments before the third period when Washington surrendered their two goal lead in a matter of 28 seconds. Boston’s Dennis Seidenburg was able to sneak a wrist shot from the blue line past Holtby, and only 28 seconds later Brad Marchand pounded home a goal.
As the old saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” and make no mistake about it, the Capitals proved how tough they were in the third period. With Boston seizing all the momentum in the most important game of the season on their home ice, many teams would not be able to focus and rebound. But the Caps managed to fight back with Mike Knuble’s goal early in the third. The lead did not last more than six minutes, but as the Caps benefited from a power play late in the third, Brouwer crusied along the right wall beating Tim Thomas with a wrist shot glove side.
Game 6 belonged to the Boston Bruins, thanks to Tyler Seguin’s overtime score. The Bruins pounced on a mental mistake by Nicklas Backstrom, after two quick passes Seguin sprung up ice with a one-on-one opportunity with Holtby. Seguin faked the wrist shot which pulled Holtby out of goal, only to skate past him to deliver the puck to the wide open net.
Although the Bruins had their celebrating in game 6, it would be the Capitals popping the final bottle of champaign. The Capitals bench immediately exploded to swallow Joel Ward in celebration after he scored his epic overtime goal to give the Caps the series win. Mike Knuble blocked a dump-in attempt by Boston and charged through to the offensive zone. With Ward on his right for a two-on-one break, Knuble backhanded a shot off of Tim Thomas, but Ward hammered home the game-winner in a narrow opening on Thomas’s short side.
The most intriguing fact could be Ward joins his head coach as one of only two players ever to score a series-winning goal in overtime of game seven for the Washington Capitals. With the latest version of overtime heroism, the Caps are set to face their next opponent.
The New York Rangers will toe the line with the Caps in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. The Rangers were able to vanquish the pesky Ottawa Senators in seven games for their first round series.
New York and Washington split the regular season series 2-2. The Capitals earned two 4-1 victories, including a win on the final game of the regular season. The Rangers will be seeking to exact revenge on the Caps after the DC squad as punched their opponent’s one-way ticket out of the playoffs not once, but twice in the past three seasons. Washington eliminated the Rangers in seven games back in the 2009 quarterfinals and again in last season’s quarterfinals with a 4-1 series victory. Washington owns the overall postseason record over the Rangers 19-15.