It was their 196th game in the past eighteen months. Their power-play was once again unproductive, scoring at only a 14% (3-for-23) clip. They’d lost three out of the four playoff games on home ice. The unproven opposing goaltender posted an otherworldly (for a rookie) 2.00 goals against average. Yet, through all that, the Boston Bruins still came within inches of winning their first round series against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday evening.
Less than thirty seconds into the overtime period of game seven, Boston’s sure-handed alternate captain Patrice Bergeron wound up with the puck on his stick while staring at an open Washington goal and a chance to send the Bruins to round two for the fourth consecutive season. Unfortunately, hampered by an upper body injury, Bergeron just couldn’t settle the puck, sending the rubber disk eight inches wide of the yawning net and into the corner.
Only two minutes later, the Capitals would make the Bruins pay for their missed opportunity when fourth line cog Joel Ward backhanded the puck past Tim Thomas to lift Washington to it’s first road victory in a game seven in franchise history.
“It happened so fast, again, as you said, but I knew he was going to take the puck to the net.I was just trying to follow it up just in case there was a puck loose that squirted or a rebound. I just kind of saw it and then gave it one of the hardest whacks I’ve ever given a puck.” – Joel Ward
Becoming the seventh defending Stanley Cup champion in the last nine years to bow out in the first round, summer has commenced on Causeway street much earlier than the Bruins had hoped.
“We we’re used to going you know, all the way. And to be done now it’s like, it’s kind of hard to even understand. It’s like you can’t even believe it’s over right now.” – Johnny Boychuk
For Boston, was it a disappointment? Yes, of course. But was it a choke? Nope.
Let’s call it for what it was: the Washington Capitals deserved to win the series. Their dedication, commitment and desperation far exceeded that of what looked to be an understandably burnt-out Boston squad. In every facet of the game you could logically give the advantage to Washington over the course of the entire seven game set. In a sense, the Capitals beat the Bruins at their own game: they rolled four lines with success, rode timely goaltending, turned their opposition’s mistakes into goals and collectively bought in to their head coach’s strict defensive system.
From top to bottom, the Capitals outplayed the Bruins. It was evident from puck drop in game one. Washington’s top-six forwards (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Laich, Johansson, Brouwer) produced ten of the team’s sixteen goals on the series and added eleven assists. Spearheaded by Russian uberstar Alex Ovechkin and underrated pivot Brooks Laich, the Capitals’ top forwards elevated their play in this series in the way all superstar players should.
Boston’s top two lines (Krejci, Lucic, Seguin, Peverley, Bergeron, Marchand) were a shell of their former selves, picking up only seven goals and nine assists. Perhaps more telling was that the two players who produced the most out of the aforementioned six were a 20-year-old in his sophomore season (Seguin) and a player who was only given a top-six spot in the absence of the injured Nathan Horton (Peverley). Combining for only three goals and eight points in seven games, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and David Krejci seem to have lost some of the luster that regarded them as “big-time playoff performers”.
Much in the same mold as Boston’s fourth unit in 2011, the Washington grinders proved themselves invaluable in this series, picking up two goals — including Ward’s series winner — and adding four assists whilst continuing to hold their own in the defensive zone as head coach Dale Hunter relied on them to preserve leads late in games. The production and dependability of the Caps’ fourth line (Ward, Keith Aucoin, Mike Knuble) provided Hunter the opportunity to line match and wear down the Bruins over the course of the series — something Claude Julien rode all the way to a Stanley Cup championship just one year ago –.
Boston’s defense corps were strong all series long. The German-born tank that is Dennis Seidenberg once again proved how truly valuable an asset he is for the Black and Gold, holding Ovechkin to only a five point series. The Johnny Boychuk — Andrew Ference pairing did a formidable job while consistently being matched up against the dynamic duo of Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. Even the oft-scratched Mike Mottau impressed in games six and seven while filling in for an injured Joe Corvo. However, what shocked many — including myself — and made the real difference in this series was the strong defensive play of Washington’s blueliners. The surprisingly efficient play of Roman Hamrlik, Mike Green and John Carlson, amongst others, is what allowed the Caps to nearly completely shut down the Boston top-six.
Entering this series, the Bruins were thought to have the greatest advantage in this series between the pipes. It was Capitals’ rookie Braden Holtby — who had only seven games of previous NHL experience — against the reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe trophy winner Tim Thomas. That’s why they play the games, folks. The 22-year-old Saskatchewan native bested Thomas on the stat sheet in every meaningful category — 2.00 GAA to Thomas’ 2.14; .940 SVG % to Thomas’ .923; and of course wins, 4-3 — and by most accounts was the better goalie in this series.
The players in that Bruins locker room deserve tons of credit for how they handled things after being sent home in the first round for the first time since 2008. They were asked about lingering injuries, a shortened summer, a questionable non-call (for goaltender interference) on the game-winning goal, and missing important pieces of their roster (Horton, Adam McQuaid). The Bruins were given every opportunity to make excuses. They wanted no part of it. And they deserve an immeasurable amount of credit and respect for that.
At the end of the day — for as cliche as this may sound — it’s time for the city of Boston to “give the Devil his due” and recognize the fact that the Washington Capitals were the better team in this series and deserve to be moving on to round two.
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About the Author: Boston Bruins writer for Hockey Independent. Have written for The Hockey Guys and SB Nation Boston. Follow me on Twitter @_BWoodward or shoot me an email at BWoodward.HI@gmail.com.