Bruins 1 (OT)
Game and Series Winning goal: Joel Ward
Three Stars: Joel Ward (duh!), Tyler Seguin, Dennis Seidenberg
Now that I've gotten what has to be the biggest cliche in all sports out of the way....
We all know by now what happened. And now that what has been, literally, the closest playoff series in NHL history is over it's time to catch our collective breath. But not before reflecting on what just happened, because it was yet another defining moment in a season for team still trying to find out who they are.
Let me first start by giving a nod to the former Japers Rink Radio show. Because they nailed this, only it was two years ago. It was after the utter disaster that was the 2010 playoffs and they, Steven Pepper and Russell Waxman, discussed the need for the team to undergo something of a makeover. They saw this as necessary because it was painfully obvious that skill alone was NEVER going to get them through the playoffs. This lesson the Caps would learn, but only to a small extent the next year as they bowed out in a humiliating sweep after rolling through the first round. But the whole time Pepper and Waxman stressed the need to have the ability to score the gritty goals that define the hard work that it takes to succeed come playoff time. And a gritty goal is what won it last night. Wherever you guys are, I hope you're smiling! And come back soon, if you can!
About that gritty goal...I have to admit I was scared as hell when the game went to overtime. History shows that the game would either end within the first few minutes of OT or go to a second period and beyond. That kind of a long grind tends to favor the home team and it didn't look like either team would yield anytime soon. In other words, it was going to be a game of "next mistake loses."
But you know what? The Caps didn't come out like they were playing not to lose. There was a jump in their step, a spark in their play that made them look fresher than the Bruins. When I noticed this, I was really hoping that they would go for the kill when they got the opportunity and not sit back. The Bruins nearly beat them to the punch 35 seconds in when Patrice Bergeron almost won it with a half-open net in front of him. All he had to do was lift it over Braden Holtby's pad, but somehow he couldn't before the puck was swatted out of harm's way by Karl Alzner. You had to feel for him because if he was 100% healthy, there's no doubt he would have put that away.
Nail-biting, back and forth play ensued for another two minutes. Then, a neutral zone turnover was picked up by Mike Knuble who led a two-on-one rush towards the Bruins' net. Of all the unlikely scenarios for this series, this was probably one of the least likely. It mattered not as the 39 year old Knuble suddenly looked like he had the legs of a man half his age and blazed toward the net. Joel Ward was on his right wing, but Knuble had one thing on his mind--get it on net. He did. It was the perfect shot that didn't go in; a juicy rebound that came off of Thomas' pads. It was collected by Ward, who by then had sidestepped defenseman Greg Zanon, leaving him just enough space for his game winning shot--a sweet backhander that slid through Thomas' pads at 2:57 of the extra session. I don't think I've done that much jumping and screaming since kindergarten.
And now, it's time to give credit where credit is due.....even though we all know cash is better.
Credit--to Matt Hendricks for exemplifying what I mentioned in the last paragraph. In a Game 7 situation, goals are often at a premium and need to be scored by any means necessary. Hendricks was willing to go to the net and do whatever it took and it paid off. No telling where this game would have gone had he not opened the scoring.
Credit--to Craig Laughlin for calling out the officials near the end of the game when they handed out that penalty to Jason Chimera for holding. Sure if you went by the book, it was a legit call, but they completely ignored Matt Hendricks being dumped by Dennis Seidenberg earlier. Like Locker said, if you're going to put the whistles away, keep them away. By the way, one of the refs last night was Stephen Walkom, who has missed some very obvious calls in this first round, including the now infamous Raffi Torres hit on Marian Hossa. If he makes an appearance in the second round, then there ought to be an investigation. Sorry we won't hear your golden voices for play-by-play, Locker and Joe B, see you next season!
Credit--to Karl Alzner for being the soul of stability on the blueline corps. He did everything that was asked of him and he did it well. And he got almost no credit for it, save for a second star in Game 2. He'll never light up a scoresheet, but anyone watching knows that it would have been tough for the Caps to have kept their end clean without him. Saved the series in OT by blocking away Bergeron's dangerous chance.
Credit--to John Carlson for coming alive at the best possible time. He got his swagger back, putting shots towards the goal. One of those led to Matt Hendricks' opener. And in Game 7 he tied for the game high in blocked shots with five. He's peaking at a good time and they will need him to continue into the next round.
Credit--to Jay Beagle for his outstanding play throughout the series. Looking over his numbers, one thing stands out--his faceoff percentage. He never finished a game below 53% and even won as many as 70% of his draws twice in the series. Add to that his overall solid play in the defensive zone whether it was along the boards or clearing rebounds and you have to put him up there as one of the Capitals move valuable players in this series. This may have been Braden Holtby's coming-out party, but this series was also a showcase for Beagle's skills as he has now solidified his place as one of the Caps' top defensive forwards.
Credit--to Jeff Schultz and Dennis Wideman for at least not screwing up.
Credit--to Alexander Semin who hopefully has chased away his playoff demons. Time will tell of course as his team enters the second round, but Good Sasha showed up enough times to make the difference in so many ways. Let's hope it continues into the next round.
Credit--to the entire Boston Bruins team for being very worthy opponents. I said at the beginning of the series that they're not the defending Cup champs for nothing. Save for a few lucky bounces, they could have easily taken the series. They definitely did not go down quietly and were proud champions to the end. Congratulations and good luck next season.
Credit--to Joel Ward and Mike Knuble for closing out the series. Smokin' Al Koken said it right on the post game show--how fitting that these guys who had been relegated to pretty much being glorified benchwarmers get the job done at the most crucial moment. It is their grit, experience, and knack for coming through at the right time that will be relied on from here on out.
Credit--to Alexander Ovechkin for perhaps finally doing what a captain needs to do by putting his team ahead of himself. Sure he's still ticked about his ice time, but he knows now that it's what gets the wins. I'm a bit disappointed in his OT play however, he threw his hands up in disgust when Dennis Seidenberg stood him up in front of the net. I'm hoping that was disgust at no penalty being called as opposed to frustration or a "give-up" gesture.
Credit--to Braden Holtby for standing tall in net and believing in himself and his team when everybody (including me--but I've never been so happy to be wrong, except when Mrs. Blueliner is talking to me) had counted him out. This kid was virtually unflappable and, except for his roughing penalty in Game 1, showed the poise of a hardened veteran during the whole series. THIS is the type of goaltending that carries teams to championships and that's no exaggeration.
Credit to the Coach Dale Hunter. Yes that's right, I'm saying it. He's proving that his system is what the Caps needed to not only survive in the playoffs, but succeed as well. His team may have been outplayed and overmatched at times, but never, ever was out of this series. Every game was a tossup and Dale Hunter's squad had a chance to win all seven of these games. Against the highly regarded and experienced Cup champs, that's no small feat. Whether it was matching lines against Claude Julien or keeping the club loose before a tense Game 7, Hunter pushed all the right buttons in this series. Yes it's true that Holtby bailed them out many times, but it was Hunter's gameplan that kept them in it the whole time. It's a bit funny if you think about it--he showed little emotion, preached defense, and didn't waver in his overall scheme. In other words he was the exact opposite of Bruce Boudreau. Maybe that's what this team needed all along. Please, Coach, don't make a liar out of me next series because you've got the whole town believing again.
So it's on to Round 2. Not to be a downer about all this, but after such a long, hard-fought series there's a danger of a letdown and the Caps have to avoid that. In my opinion it's what set them up for failure last year. The Caps need to keep on thinking big picture while continuing to do all the little things right. I'll say something else here, if it's the Flyers we're facing, I'm not sure I like our chances.
But then, we've already knocked out the defending champs, so anything's possible, right?
In the Stanley Cup playoffs it sure as hell is. As long as you believe......