By Stu Hackel
This memorable first round moves on Wednesday night to the first of three Game 7s in the Eastern Conference when a pair of marquee clubs square off in Boston: the Stanley Cup champion Bruins and the newly-minted defensive strong boys/former offensive dynamo Washington Capitals.
Had it not been for the five straight overtime games between the Coyotes and Blackhawks, this would be hailed as clearly the opening round’s tightest series. Three matches have gone to extra time and of the total 387 minutes 31 seconds played in the six games, the teams have been tied for 268: 54 of them. Washington has led for 74:14; Boston for 44:23. The only two-goal lead, which the Caps had in Game 5, lasted all of 2:54. In a postseason that has seen many see-saw lead changes, this series has had none.
Additionally, each team has scored 14 goals. But most notably, this is the first playoff matchup in Stanley Cup history ever to have its first six games all decided by one-goal margins.
The runaway star has been Caps rookie goaltender Braden Holtby, whose first six games of NHL playoff action have seen him play as well as, if not better than, Boston counterpart Tim Thomas, last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy-winner as playoff MVP. Saves by the 22-year-old Holtby like this one in Game 5 have haunted the B’s:
Considering that Washington has abandoned its firewagon hockey identity and gone into passive resistance mode, the play of Holtby – or whoever their goaltender was going to be – was an essential factor if it were to have a chance to beating a battle-hardened Boston team that showed its resiliency during its Cup run last season. After injuries hit goalies Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, and the job fell to Holtby, the Caps have proved to be just as able as the Bruins to recover from adversity and play well.
“Both teams are just really resilient and I think both teams have a lot of character,” Bruins forward Bard Marchand said after practice on Tuesday. “And when you have guys like that in the room and on the ice, a little momentum swing won’t affect guys and they can bounce back fairly quickly from it.”
Still, Holtby and his teammates nearly closed out the series on home ice on Sunday, only to fall in overtime on this terrific goal by another young star, Boston’s Tyler Seguin.
It was the fourth time that the road team came away with the victory but — even though the road teams are 28-17 so far this spring – when a team squanders their chance to knock out an opponant on home ice and has to try it again on the road in a Game 7, it’s a far more formidable task.
The 20-year-old Seguin, who had some eye-popping performances last spring, seized a good time to have his best game of the round. Many of the key B’s have been inconsistent in this series. Seguin’s linemates also have struggled. Big, tough Milan Lucic has often seemed distracted by the Caps’ close checking, and center David Krejci, like Lucic, has been limited to only three points. The absence of Nathan Horton, out since January with a concussion, and in whose spot Seguin now skates, has had an impact on their effectiveness. Thomas, while still quite good, is less sharp than he was last spring. Center Patrice Bergeron has been slowed by an upper body injury that’s prevented him from taking faceoffs, one of the strengths of his excellent all-around game. Marchand has only a goal and an assist, both coming in Game 5, and seems less brash than he can be.
Boston’s difficulties coincide with how well the Capitals now play defensively. GM George McPhee added some experienced grinders to his roster this season in Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer. Jay Beagle has developed into an excellent defensive center and faceoff specialist. Beagle’s 61.6 percent success rate on the draw ranks fourth best in the postseason.
Under midseason replacement coach Dale Hunter, the Caps now peel out of the offensive zone quickly and offer only token resistance in the neutral zone, making their stand in their own end and clogging the area in front of Holtby without obscuring his ability to see shots. They keep Boston to the outside and limit second chance opportunities. They’ve also been proficient at blocking shots (68, tied with the Rangers for most in the playoffs).
It has taken a major overhaul of the Capitals’ once-thrilling style to do this. Now, flashy stickhandling and risky passes are frowned upon as Hunter prefers a safe game while hoping to limit unfortunate plays like the one Nicklas Backstrom made, turning the puck over and leading to Seguin’s game-winner. Alexander Semin also gave away the puck earlier, leading to this go-ahead goal by the Bruins’ Andrew Ference in the third period.
“Last game, you noticed turnovers and going through the middle of the ice and soft up the walls,” defenseman Karl Alzner said on Tuesday (video). “We’ve been good on the draws, we’ve been good getting out of our zone and we’ve got to have confidence that if we don’t have that play, we’ve got to just chip it up the wall and keep going. It’s simple hockey and if you overcomplicate things like this team has done in the past, you lose games or you get a lot of goals scored against you.”
The new approach has resulted in a drastic cutting in ice time for some of the Caps’ big offensive guns, notably Alex Ovechkin. No longer a regular linemate at even strength with the highly skilled Backstrom and Semin, Ovie played only 15 minutes 34 seconds in Game 5, the lowest in his playoff career as Hunter elected to keep him on the bench for a huge chunk of the third period. There have been rumblings that Ovechkin is less than enamored with Hunter, and yesterday after practice, Ovie acknowledged that he was not overjoyed by sitting.
“Of course, sometimes you get angry you didn’t play a lot (of) minutes. And sometimes you get angry you’re not out there,” Ovechkin said. “But if it’s good for the team, you have to eat it….My role is still to score goals. But sometimes, in different situations, he puts different guys out there. If we win, we win. If we lose, we’re going to lose.”
With Holtby, who Ovechkin said gives the Caps confidence, they always have a chance to win. The 6-foot-2 Saskatchewan native has reminded some of Canadiens rookie Ken Dryden, who entered the 1971 playoffs with only a handful of NHL regular season games on his resume and defeated the defending champion Bruins in seven games of the first round.
Fans of the champs won’t want to see their heroes dump out in the first round, and fans of the challengers won’t want yet another playoff disappointment for a team with a postseason history that has been nothing but disappointment.
Someone is going to be heartbroken at the end of this one.
Poor Michael, a huge Canucks fan. He’s got a heartache, too.
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