Colonel, John “Hannibal” Smith, who led a group of fictitious vigilantes known as the “A ”Team” on the popular 1980’s TV show of the same name, used to say following a successful mission, “I love it when it when a plan comes together. No saying or phrase encapsulates the Washington Capitals 2-1 double overtime victory on Saturday afternoon more than his when you consider how the Capitals tied their best of seven series vs. the defending Stanley Cup champion, Boston Bruins. The Capitals beat the Bruins at their own game by using the successful time tested Stanley Cup playoff formula of playing great defense, getting great goaltending, and scoring timely goals. Washington has used this formula in the playoffs during the past, but not with any consistency. This year that could change. Upon taking over in late November for the fired Bruce Boudreau, Capitals head Coach Dale Hunter instilled a very disciplined trapping style of play that emphasized defensive accountability first.
Hunter’s system protected leads, and generated scoring chances from miscues by the opposition. The former Caps tough man turned head coach believed that playing a choking and consistent style of defense would be better for this team come playoff time. Sound familiar. There was one difference from last season when Boudreau tried something similar, Hunter remained consistent in how he played his system and benched players who wouldn’t stick with it.
The Capitals did not exactly take to Hunters new system, as they were just 30-23-7. There were games the Caps seemed to execute Hunters system to perfection, like the two wins they enjoyed against the Bruins in Boston during the season’s final weeks.
Unfortunately, the Caps could not string together more than a few games of success and at times, looked lost on the ice. Washington looked destined to miss the playoffs following a 5-1 loss to the Sabres during the final 10 days of the season, but thanks in part to poor play by the team ahead of them, managed to secure a playoff berth in the next to last game of the season. Miraculously, the Caps played one of their best games of the season during the final game of the season and things looked to fall in place as they closed out the season with a solid 4-1 win against the East’s top team, the New York Rangers.
The Capitals continued to play great defensive hockey during game one on Thursday night, but could generate no offense against an equally tough Bruins defense, which is led by Zdeno Chara, and goalie Tim Thomas, who was last year’s Stanley Cup playoff MVP. With just 17-shots, the Caps fell 1-0 at TD Bank Garden on Thursday night. Despite the loss, there were signs that the Caps were for real and could pose a real threat to the defending champs if they could generate a few more shots, win a few more face-offs in their own zone, and deliver a few extra hits.
Almost to perfection, the Capitals executed two of three key ingredients for playoff success as they shut down the high-powered and balanced attack of the Bruins. An attack that possessed six forwards with 20 or more goals this season. They also got great goaltending from rookie Braden Holtby, who made 29 saves, many in spectacular fashion.
Washington also did the little the things well. They were not stunningly outhit (40-29) by a very physical and bigger Bruins team. The Caps managed to win 33 of the 67 face-offs during the game, and considering the Bruins led the NHL in faceoff wins this season, not allowing Boston to win their season average of 54 percent was big on the road in Game 1. The Capitals also killed off four Boston power plays, as Holtby stopped all nine shots by the Bruins with the extra man.
It was said that the Caps played good, but would need to play better in Game 2 if they wanted to tie the series and steal home ice advantage from the defending Stanley Cup Champions, and that is exactly what they did, as Dale Hunters plan seemed to finally come together.
In Game 2, Washington came out and matched the Bruins physicality during the contest, and even outhit Boston 41-36 for the contest. Washington also won the face-off battle in the contest, winning 34 of the 64 red dot draws. The Capitals and Bruins managed to play almost an identical contest to that of the first game, but with one major difference, The Capitals did indeed generate more scoring chances, and were able to score the all-important first goal of the contest.
Alex Ovechkin generated just one shot on goal in Game 1, and that came while the Caps were on a power play in the third period. Even though the Great 8 did not score the first goal in Game 2, he would not be denied his rightful place on the playoff score sheet. In fact, Ovechkin has played in 39-career Stanley Cup playoff games, and he has yet to go without a point in two consecutive games. He recorded the primary assist when he fired a shot high along the left sideboards, which bounced off Bruins defenseman Greg Zanon and into the blue paint in front of Tim Thomas. Before Thomas could cover the puck, the last Caps player to win a Stanley Cup, Troy Brouwer, managed to poke the puck past last year’s Vezina winner. The goal was the fifth of Brouwer’s playoff career. Two seasons ago, the former Blackhawk scored four times for Chicago as the Hawks went on to win their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.
Yes, it was a lucky bounce, but I promise you the words luck, playoffs and Washington Capitals will not be found in any word association games from the past 25 years. The 1-0 lead with 2:03 remaining in the second period was huge. Scoring first against Boston matters in large part because it greatly diminishes the chances of the B’s grabbing a two-goal lead. When that happens, the game is likely over. Despite the saying that a 2-goal lead is the most dangerous lead to have in a hockey game, Boston was 38-0-0 when they owned one at any time during a game this season.
The Capitals did not exactly fall into a defensive shell, but they didn’t exactly play offensive minded hockey either. Boston tried to open the game up, and was able to get better scoring chances to start the third period. Through the first two games, the Caps have opted to sit rookie defenseman Dmitry Orlov in favor of Jeff Schultz. Schultz was on the ice when Chris Kelly won game one and was on the ice when with 7:47 to go in the game, got caught flatfooted deep inside his own zone and was beaten to a loose puck.
Also on the ice for Kelly’s Game 1 winner was his blue line mate Dennis Wideman, and like the Game 1 goal, was not much help on the play. Instead of playing the puck, the Caps lone All-Star representative was busy finishing a needless check on the Bruins game one hero. Washington paid dearly for the mistakes, as Boston third-line winger Benoit Pouliot won a foot race to the loose puck, which Schultz originally tried to block ala Alex Ovechkin off the stick of Brian Rolston. When Holtby failed to poke-check it away, and Schultz stood cemented into the ice, Pouliot beat them both and chipped it past the net minder.
Whether or not Schultz returns to the line-up for Game 3 depends on how Hunter saw that play. If he saw it like I did, then Schultz, who is a minus-2 in the series (Boston’s only scored twice) should be watching in a suite from Owner Ted Leonsis box as Orlov suites up.
Washington did not panic as the Bruins and their fans upped the ante. With the Boston faithful on their feet and making a lot of noise, the boys on the ice kept up with the pressure, but Holtby stood strong and the Caps stayed within Hunters system forcing a second consecutive overtime game.
If history is a good indicator, than Nick Backstrom and his teammates knew that winning game two was simply a foregone conclusion. The last time the Caps played consecutive overtime contests in the postseason was in the first two games of the 2010 Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Montreal Canadiens. Washington lost Game 1 of that series on a Tomas Plekanec overtime goal and two nights later in Game 2, the Caps rebounded by winning when Backstrom beat Jaroslav Halak just 31-seconds into the extra session.
The Capitals have played three straight overtime games in their playoff history. In the 1993 Patrick Division semifinal series against the New York Islanders, Washington lost Games 2, 3 and 4 of the series in overtime, as the Caps went onto to lose the series in six games. That series is best known for the hit that that current Caps Head Coach Dale Hunter placed on Pierre Turgeon.
With the Islanders ahead by three goals late in the third period of Game 6, Hunter gave the puck away to Turgeon, who capitalized on his scoring opportunity. The frustrated Hunter blindsided Turgeon while he celebrated his goal. The hit caused Turgeon to suffer a separated shoulder on the play, and Hunter was suspended for 21 games to start the following season, which at the time was the longest suspension ever handed out for an on-ice incident.
Hunter is much calmer these days and after learning some tough on the job lessons this season as a rookie head coach in the NHL, seems confident while pushing the right buttons through the first two games. One of those buttons was moving Jason Chimera from the left side of a line with Backstrom and Alexander Semin to a wing position on a line with Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks. This allowed Marcus Johansson to move to the second line with Backstrom and Semin.
“Just to get more speed on that line there,” Hunter said about the line change. “Chimera is fast, too. So it could be a race off there. [Backstrom] and [Johansson] know each other, being Swedish and stuff, pretty good. Just give them a different look. [Chimera], the thing about him he can play anywhere. He’ll do anything for the team.”
After a scoreless first overtime, Nicklas Backstrom lined up for a faceoff with Bruins red-dot specialist Patrice Bergeron with a little over three minutes gone in second OT. As he has done throughout most of the first two games, Bergeron won the draw, to Johnny Boychuk, but Noychuk failed to clear the puck, and Backstrom’s new line mate, Marcus Johansson gained possession of the puck after outworking Boychuk and Andrew Ference. Johansson fed it smoothly to Backstrom atop the left circle, and Backstrom, who had begun to drift back into defensive responsibility in anticipation of the potential Boychuk clearing attempt, was now trying to tee up the end-over-end puck.
Instead of wasting the scoring chance by trying to settle down the puck down on the ice surface, Backstrom fired a knuckle ball over the left shoulder of Thomas for the game winner. Thomas never l;ooked behind him and skated for the dressing room. Backstrom, Johansson and the rest of Capitals celebrated their double overtime victory, which tied the series at a game apiece.
The 13th goal of Backstrom’s playoff career was also his second tally in just his sixth game back since returning from a concussion that caused him to miss 40 games. Caps fans held their breath with 2:46 to play in the second period as Backstyrom took more than a few shots to his fragile dome in succession. He was also thrown to the ice in front of Bruins goalie Tim Thomas after what Boston thought was a little too much extra effort from the Swedish center as Thomas covered up a puck. Thomas also took a shot at Backstrom’s head with his blocker, and even seemed to smile a little bit afterward.
Backstrom knows it is the playoffs and other than being tired following the game (30:01 ice time) said, “I was trying to put the puck in the net. The puck was loose in front of there and maybe thought I was hitting his pads for no reason. I don’t know. It happens. It’s playoffs. “
“I got a lot of things to my head this game but that’s how it is in playoffs,” Backstrom said. “I’m fine with it. Obviously, you want to go to the net and see if you can score goals; they want to protect the net so that’s how it’s going to be in the playoffs. Lot of great battles out there tonight.”
Backstrom was then asked by the reporter if he got the last laugh, “Yeah, well, today I got the last laugh” the Caps star center responded.
CLOSE DOES NOT EVEN DESCRIBE THIS SERIES:
To say that the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins best of seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals match-up is close, would be like saying Mother Teresa just helped people. The word “close” does not lend justice in describing how tight the series actually is, but maybe some of the following stats can help.
Through two games, the Capitals and Bruins are just 35-minutes and 46-seconds away from having actually played three regulation games.
Washington and Boston have played 144 minutes and 14 seconds worth of hockey, and three overtime sessions. Only four goals have been scored, all of them during 5-on-5 situations.
Both teams have combined for 129 face-offs through two games, with Washington taking 66 (51%) of them from the NHL’s best regular season faceoff team. Boston led the circuit this season winning 54 percent of all center circle draws but that may be splitting hairs with the Caps holding just a three-faceoff win advantage in the series.
According to the so-called experts, the Bruins size advantage and physicality would be a huge factor in the series. With players like Chara, Seidenberg, Lucic, and Brad Machand, the B’s were easily supposed to outhit and dominate the Caps in the physical game. Washington, not known for being one of the tougher teams in the league, would not push back we were told.
While this still may be a factor as the series wears on, it has not been much of an advantage for the Bruins during the first two games on home ice. TD Bank Garden is where the Bruins had to establish their physical dominance. Failing to do so could be one of the major turning points if Washington wins the series. Through the first two games, the Caps trail the Bruins by just six hits. Boston has 76 official hits in the series and the Caps 70. Washington outhit Boston in game two 41-36, and appeared to be more physical in front of Tim Thomas than they were in Game No.1.
The Capitals leading hitter is team captain Alex Ovechkin. Ovie has 12 hits through two games, which actually leads both teams in that category. Ironically, in Game 1, Zdeno Chara registered four hits, all on Ovechkin and consequently, No.8 was kept off the score sheet. However, In game two, Chara was not credited with a hit and Ovie help set up the play that gave the Caps a 1-0 lead.
One major reason why the series is so close is the two teams simply are not giving the puck away. The Capitals have committed just 19 giveaways in a little over seven periods (2.6 PP). Even more impressive, the Bruins have committed just 13, which is less than two per period.
While these categories are close and help explain the reason the No.7 seeded Capitals are 1-1 with the defending Stanley Cup Champs, Washington must correct the disparity in shot totals. Boston holds a major edge in every shot category. The Bruins have 62 even strength shots, and 10 more with the man advantage compared to 46 and nine for the Capitals.
THE KID CAN PLAY:
Let the record show that I said last in March 2011 that Braden Holtby was the best choice as the Capitals goalie of the future. I disagreed when Washington sent Holtby back to Hershey then, and it has since been widely speculated throughout the organization that sending Holtby back to the AHL in order to get more playing time did not do anything to help his game. He was average at best in Chocolate Town this season, and in fact, appeared to have his confidence shaken by the demotion.
Holtby has always made the best of his time with the big club and began the series as the 17th different goalie to man the pipes for the Capitals in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Washington is looking for the future between the pipes, and Holtby can become that future if he continues to play the way he has in the first two games.
The 22-year old is also the sixth different Caps goalie to suit in Washington’s last six post-season trips. He is the third rookie to give it a go behind Semyon Varlamov (2009), and Michael Neuvirth, who was stellar last season vs. the Rangers during the Caps five game round one victory.
Holtby was again the reason the Capitals had a chance to win overtime on Saturday. In two games, He has stopped 72 of the 74 shots he’s faced in the series, including 43-of-44 in Game 2. He now owns a 0.83 GAA and a .973 save pct. for the series, and not only is Holtby stopping the puck, but he is also playing smart out of the crease and when he handles the puck.
Holtby’s puck handling skills have been an asset to the Caps during the first two games, especially in Game No.1 when the Bruins seemed to be on the power play forever. Boston delivers a hard fore-check but it has been slowed by Holtby’s ability to control the puck. Dale Hunter has referred to his young net minders skills with the puck as a “risk/reward thing”, and so far, Hunter and his team have been rewarded by Holtby’s all-around play.
Holtby is 14-4-3 with a 2.02 and a .929 save percentage, along with three shutouts in 21 career NHL games. He has now earned his first playoff and regular season win vs. the Bruins. On Nov. 5, 2010, in D.C, Holtby took over for a struggling Michael Neuvirth, who allowed three third period goals in a span of six minutes. The goals allowed the B’s to tie Washington, but the Caps then scored the next two of the contest to earn the Lloydminster, Saskatchewan native his first NHL “W”. Holtby made just four saves in only 10-minutes of work that night, but certainly had to work harder to earn his first NHL playoff victory on Saturday afternoon.
THE CORE 4:
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, and Mike Green were once called the “Young Guns” of this Washington team. However, after five years and numerous injuries as well as excruciating playoff collapses, the Young Guns, are now referred to as the “Core Four”.
During Saturday’s win, the Core 4 showed when playing together healthy, the Capitals are indeed a Stanley Cup contender that should not be taken lightly. After combining to register a minus-1 and just five shots on goal in Game 1, the core four dominated the ice on Saturday. They were a plus five, had 16-shots on goal, and were most impressive when playing defense.
The most impressive of the bunch had to be Alex Semin, who played arguably his best defensive playoff game ever as a member of the Capitals. He had one blocked shot, delivered a big hit on Chara, but his diving play to stop a potential breakaway late in the game may have been the difference in the contest. The soon to be unrestricted free agent was diving for loose pucks, battled in the corners, and along the sideboards, as well as stuck his nose to agitate a few of the Bruins during post whistle scrums.
Semin doesn’t’ have bad playoff numbers with Washington during his career. No.28 has 30 points (12 G-18 A) in 39 career games. He is a plus three, and has three game winning goals. Mike Green did not exactly get off to a great start in Game 1. He had no shots, no hits, and blocked just two shots while missing the net with easy shots twice.
Green woke up in Game 2, and in a big way. Although he did not have a point, Green played a team-best 33:28 and was a plus two in Game 2. He fired four shots, blocked three, and delivered three solid hits. One of those hits came along the sideboards in overtime, which quickly stopped a Bruins potential 3-on-2 breakout attempt. The most important stat of those may be the four shots. When Green is shooting accurately, it opens things up for the Capitals down low. Teams must contend with Green at the blue line when his shot is on, which allows the Caps forwards to work in front. He has not scored a goal since October, but if he continues to play as he did in Game 2, that drought could end very soon.
Alexander Ovechkin continues to show a two-way presence on the ice that was severely lacking from the captain during past post season games. This past season, Ovechkin was the only player in the league to score 30 or more goals (38) and also dish out 200 or more hits (215). Through two games, Ovechkin leads both teams with 12 hits, and yesterday managed to get off three shots. He was very disciplined on defense and turned the puck over just twice. The Great 8 skated 23:30 in the contest, and despite being hit hard on almost every shift by Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, seems to have fresh legs almost every time he steps onto the ice.
Alex Ovechkin has recorded 1.32 points per game in his NHL playoff career, the fifth-highest total in NHL history (minimum 30 games played). Only Wayne Gretzky (1.84), Mario Lemieux (1.61), Barry Pederson (1.53) and Sidney Crosby (1.33) have totaled more points per game over their playoff careers than Ovechkin. Ovechkin ranks tied for second (with Mike Bossy) behind Mario Lemieux (0.71) in playoff goals scored per game, scoring an average of 0.66 per contest.
Nicklas Backstrom is progressing well from injury and while his goal was his most obvious contribution, Backstrom’s presence has meant so much more to Washington. He has won 17-of 28 (60%) face-offs in the series, and yesterday blocked three shots. Having the Core 4 perform at the top of their games, both offensively and defensively, can only mean the Capitals will be that much tougher to beat.
At one point late in the season after all four were healthy and playing together, the Capitals were 11-1-1- with them in the line-up.
A SIX PACK OF STATS THAT MATTER HEADING TO GAME 3:
When following a Game 1 loss with a Game 2 victory, the Caps are 7-3 in their playoff history. They have won seven of the last eight playoff series in which that scenario occurred. Since 2006, teams that win Game 2 of a series have gone on to win 38 of those 55 series (.691 winning percentage).
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Alexander Semin are the only four Capitals that have suited up for all of the teams 39 contests during the past four-playoff seasons. Mike Green has played in 37 games. During those 39 games, 24 of them have been one-goal affairs, with a dozen of them requiring overtime. The Capitals are 10-14 in those 24 one-goal games and they are 5-7 in those 12 overtime tilts.
The Capitals have now blocked 49 shots through two games. This is a surprising turn of events to the Bruins. Roman Hamrlik led the Caps in Game 1 with five blocked shots, and Karl Alzner led the way in Game 2 with five. Even players like Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson have gotten into the act. Both took shots in unprotected areas of their bodies during each game, but kept trying to jump in front afterward.
The Bruins are now 0-for 27 on the power play in their last nine first round playoff games. Boston is currently 0-for-6 on the power play thus far through two games, and last year went 0-for-21 vs. the Montreal Canadiens in a seven game series that Nathan Horton won with a goal in overtime of Game 7.
Since Dale Hunter took over as head coach on Nov. 28, the Capitals (including Saturdays win) are 26-3-5 when scoring first. Washington went 23-1-4 when leading after the first period, which ranked fifth in the NHL and the Caps are now 26-0-1 when leading after two periods, third in the NHL (.962 win percentage).
The Capitals split the season series at Verizon center this year with Boston. Washington earned a 5-3 win on Jan. 24 at Verizon Center behind a Mathieu Perreault hat trick.
THEY SAID IT, “QUOTABLE’S FOLLOWING GAME 2”
“I would say it’s going to be a long series. For us it was very important to win this game and get the series tied, and go back home and have home advantage to play against the Bruins. The power play is going to be involved and again we are pretty happy, but it was a long game and everybody is tired and needs some rest.” –Capitals Team Captain, Alex Ovechkin
“I don’t know how I got the puck really. I think I had 3 guys around me and I just wanted to get it out to him. He got the shot off and it was a pretty big relief.”- Marcus Johansson on his OT pass to Backstrom
“Some of the [top] lines are trying to be a little too cute, and end up with nothing…nothing to show for it. We need to be a little bit more of a gritty team determined to go to the dirty areas, win the battles. As you can see after two games, that’s what it’s going to be.”-Claude Julien calling out the forwards from his top two lines for being “too cute.”
“I wasn’t surprised [by Washington’s grittiness] at all. They’ve got guys that will grind and block shots. You know it’s just playoff hockey where everybody does that – anything to win and that’s what it takes to win. So, it’s not really a big surprise that both teams are doing it.” – Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk
“Mentally, I just wanted to keep calm and take it save by save and just take it from there. Right now we’re winning, and we’re playing for the team to succeed.”- Braden Holtby on his great Saturday performance.
“I don’t want to say anything, but he is playing great right now, in our mentality [his play] is very important for us. This kid can save us and keep us in the game in overtime.”- The Great 8 on his rookie goalie.
“We got character guys in there. They’re going out — from everybody, from the goaltending to ‘D’ to forwards — they’re battling, playoff hockey. That’s the way you have to play to do well in the playoffs, is to battle. I thought tonight was definitely a playoff-hockey type game.”- Caps Head Coach Dale Hunter following Saturday’s win.