To say that Game 7 has been a thorn in the side of the Washington Capitals organization is an understatement. Until tonight, they had only won two of them in nine tries. Well make that three in 10 as tonight, Washington defeated the defending Stanley Cup Boston Bruins 2-1 in overtime to advance to the Eastern conference semifinals.
The Bruins and Capitals played easily the best first round series for the true hockey purist, as Game 7 followed the previous six contests in terms of closeness, tight checking, and goal scoring. The Caps-Bruins series is the first in NHL history to feature seven straight one-goal games, with six of the seven game-winning goals have come in the 59th minute of regulation or later in this series.
Each team has had one game-deciding tally in the final two minutes of regulation in this series, as Zdeno Chara did so for the Bruins in Game 3 and Troy Brouwer for the Capitals in Game 5. This was the fourth overtime game of the series, with both teams winning twice. Washington won three of the four games played in Boston, including both of their overtime winners. Nicklas Backstrom won Game 2 in double overtime, and tonight, the forgotten Joel Ward notched one of the biggest goals in franchise history, by knocking home a Mike Knuble rebound for the series winner.
The play happened just 2:57 into the extra session as Mike Knuble blocked a shot by Boston’s Benoit Pouliot and raced down on a 2-on-1 break with Ward. Goaltender Tim Thomas stopped Knuble's backhander, but Ward got position on defenseman Greg Zanon, picked up the rebound and whipped home a backhander for the win. Standing in front of Thomas was Knuble, who raised his arms in celebration, as the Bruins became the second consecutive Stanley Cup champions to lose in overtime of Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.
Last season, the Vancouver Canucks knocked out the 2010-Cup champion, Chicago Blackhawks. Vancouver won the first three games of the series before allowing the Hawks to storm back and tie the series before finally winning it on an Alexander Burrows shot 5:22 into the first overtime of Game 7. With Boston’s ouster and the Canucks having already been sent packing by the L.A. Kings, both of last season’s Stanley Cup Finals participants are out of the playoffs.
As one of the most coveted free agents this past summer, Ward signed with the Capitals for four years, and three million per season. However, he never lived up to expectations this season, as the former Nashville Predator registered career lows in goals (6), assists (12), and points (18). But if you asked any knowledgeable hockey fan why GM George McPhee overpaid to bring Ward to D.C, you would be told for what he did in the playoffs while in the Music City, and his play in front of the net.
Ward notched 17 points in 18 career playoffs games with the Preds, and cashed in during free agency after scoring seven goals in 12 playoff games last post season as Nashville went onto win their first ever playoff series. Tonight’s series winning goal (and damn doesn’t that feel good to say) was Wards second game winning goal during the playoffs.
Washington scored first in five of the seven games, and never trailed the Bruins by more than one goal at any time during the series. It’s a good thing because the Boston was 38-0-0 this season when holding a two goal lead at any time during a contest. The Caps were able to score first again tonight by capitalizing on what seemed to be the only mistake made by either team during the opening period.
Boston's Milan Lucic started to skate with the puck along the left wall in his own zone but lost it. Jason Chimera found it and got it to John Carlson at the right point. Carlson’s shot was deflected by Matt Hendricks to give Washington the first and only goal of a tight first period, in which the two teams played not to make mistakes.
The Capitals seemed to be back on their heels a bit throughout the middle frame and paid for the conservative play as Tyler Seguin, who scored the OT winner in Washington on Sunday, scored again with 5:33 left in the second period to tie the game at one goal apiece.
Through two periods, the Bruins owned almost a 2-to-1 shot advantage (25-13), but rookie Braden Holtby continued to stand strong between the pipes for the Capitals. Holtby, who is the only rookie goaltender that has appeared in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, finished his first playoff series with an impressive 2.00 GAA, and a .940 save percentage. In Game No.7 Holtby stopped 31 more shots, and 233 of the 248 shots he faced in the series, which ranks first in the NHL during the post season.
The last 18 Capitals playoff wins have now come from rookie net minders. Semyon Varlamov recorded nine, Michael Neuvirth five, and Braden Holtby with four.
Holtby was most impressive for his calm and collected demeanor in helping his team to eliminate the Bruins who were second in the league this year with 269 goals. Not to mention on the road in Boston, Holtby was 3-1 with a 1.17 goals-against average and a .969 save percentage in his four road games during these playoffs.
Holtby was most impressive in terms of sheer number of saves in one game when he stopped 44 of the 45 shots he faced in winning Game 2. His 44 saves are the second-most in the expansion era in a regulation playoff win for a rookie goaltender since Ken Dryden made 46 stops for Montreal in a 4-2 win against Boston on April 16, 1971.
Washington was outshot by Boston 248-207 in the series, and Holtby had to make another games worth of stops to help his team to a series victory. However, the Caps did do many little things right during the series with consistency that they failed to do during the regular season for any length of time.
Washington hung in there with physically more superior Bruins as the Caps were outhit by a margin of just 42. That is six per game when broken down over the entire seven game series. Washington won what seemed to be almost every important faceoff in Game 7 and outdueled the Bruins during the playoffs. It is important to note that Boston was the NHL’s best regular season faceoff team winning 54.5 percent of the ri draws this year. In Game 7 on enemy ice, the Capitals won 32 of the 59 draws. For the series, Washington enjoyed a slight but very important edge in the red circle winning 51 percent of the draws during the series compared to just 49.9 percent for the Bruins.
The Capitals frustrated the Bruins with their ability to disrupt and block shots during the series. Washington blocked and NHL leading 139 shots in seven games, while the Bruins could only manage 92. Washington also led the NHL with 60 take aways, and while they also led the league in giveaways (73), the Capitals were smart in their own end and never took a chance that left defenders out of position.
Is this really all that big of an upset? Tonight was the fifth time in just the past six weeks the Capitals have won in Boston. The Capitals are still the Capitals, and can beat any team on any day, or as the Bruins just found out, any team four out of seven games. This could be the year that the Caps make a legitimate run at Lord Stanley's Cup, and Why not. They aren't very good at doing so playing from the top. They could very well win the franchises first championship heading into the playoffs with dimsinished expectations, and no pressure.
Washington played the perfect series against the defending champions. In fact, one could say the Caps beat the Bruins much the same way Boston beat the rest of the league last season to win the Stanley Cup. The Capitals executed the basic formula for a successful post-season performance. They got great goaltending, played outstanding team defense, and received timely goal scoring that extended four lines deep. Matt Hendricks and Joel Ward didn’t exactly skate on the Caps top line this season.
Washington played tough, smart, and never took a chance that they could not back up. They never left their rookie goalie on an island, and played the type of hockey needed when he did get rattled two or three times during the series. Because of the Caps play, there will not be a repeat champion in the NHL, and there has not been one since the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in 1997 and the Capitals in 1998 to win the Cup back-to-back.
As the Capitals celebrated just their third postseason series win since a run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, I couldn’t help but think of the goal head coach Dale Hunter scored in April of 1988, to lead the Capitals past the Philadelphia Flyers giving the Washington its first ever Game 7 overtime win in franchise history.
While many still consider that contest to be the greatest in the history of the franchise, I think tonight’s game will rank right up there. You simply cannot beat watching last year’s Vezina and Conn Smyth winner Tim Thomas, give Braden Holtby a tap on the shoulder and say, "Great job, kid”.
The Capitals have a chance to now redeem themselves after a very mediocre and disappointing season with continued success through the second round. When you think about it, all they have to do to be better than last year is win just once in the next round.
Whom they play next will only remain a mystery for one more night. Washington will find out its second-round opponent Thursday night. If the New York Rangers defeat the Ottawa Senators in their Game 7, the Capitals will head for Gotham this weekend. If the Senators win, the Capitals could face the Flyers or the New Jersey Devils.
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