Watching the Washington Capitals take three of four games from the Bruins during their season series — albeit all of them except for the first being one-goal games — has to have the Black and Gold concerned about getting past the high-wattage Caps in any potential playoff series.
The Washington bunch once again played the B’s with the right amount of grittiness, used their dazzlingly high-powered PP unit to pop in a pair of power play strikes and then took advantage of a rare Tim Thomas softie in a 4-3 overtime defeat of the Spoked B in a battle of Eastern Conference titans. The game was played before a playoff-style atmosphere at the TD Banknorth Garden on Saturday afternoon, but left Bruins Nation what might happen when/if the two teams find their fates intertwined a few months from now.
The Caps’ victory highlighted their three wins in four games against the Bruins this season, and — while it wasn’t quite the dominant fashion that the Montreal Canadiens used to hand out losses to the B’s during last year’s torture chamber of a season series — the visiting hockey club exited Boston’s frozen sheet with the logical reasoning that they could take down the first place B’s in a potential winner-take-all playoff series.
Alex Ovechkin finished with one goal on the day — a typical whistling wrister that he snapped off quickly to beat Tim Thomas in the second period – and brazenly proclaimed after the game that “we can beat the (Bruins)”. In Ovechkin, Washington has that one dynamic, hard-hitting superstar capable of either completely destroying a skater in the treacherous corner or rifling a wrist shot top shelf against a snoozing defense. He’s the kind of player that could easily be a difference-maker in a seven games playoff series once the puck tournament begins.
The Caps also offer a bevy of talented, top-shelf offensive talent around their Russian superstar with the likes of record-breaking D-man Mike Green, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Victor Kozlov all chipping in offensively, and making up perhaps the star-studded PP unit in the NHL.
It’s exactly the kind of hockey squad that will test the discipline, mettle and defensive will limits of the Bruins should both Eastern Conference top seeds win out and face each other in a late May ice war for Stanley Cup Finals rights. It was easy to spot the on-ice focus of both teams, hear the frothy booing of Ovechkin each time he touched the puck and then close your eyes and envision these two teams tangling again in a late spring battle royale on the frozen sheet — a series that the B’s will have to tighten up and fly right in if they hope to improve on losing 3-of-4 and getting outscored 11-8 by the Caps.
“Every game against them we got a point, so it’s good for us,” said Ovechkin. “It’s good for us because we can tell that we can beat them. It doesn’t matter if you’re first or second (place in the Eastern Conference). They still play great. I think it’s all about us. We just need to play our game, our system and we can beat everybody.”
B’s coach Claude Julien has obviously taken a front row seat to this production before, and watched the Black and Gold snap Montreal’s spell last year once the postseason began. The young and hungry B’s pushed the top-rated Habs to the brink of elimination in a hard-fought seven game series that truly forged this year’s edition of the Spoked B. So rather than fearing a potent Washington group that seems to own their regular season number, the B’s bench boss sees a pair of closely matched teams that simply played four extremely tight hockey games during the season. If they meet again in the playoffs, all bets are off and Julien flatly states that the Capitals are far from “in their heads”.
“We’re the top two teams in our conference,” said Julien. “I’ve heard them say that they think they’re in our heads, and they do a lot of talking. They obviously don’t do a lot of research, because as I mentioned, I don’t think they really rattled us last year against Montreal when it came to playoff time. Totally different things. They were one goal games and could have gone either way. If anything, it’s two good teams going at each other, but by all means I don’t think they scare us at this point.”
Both teams are a long way off from punching up the conference finals tickets, but it could be one hell of a series if Ovechkin comes calling again with his gap-filled smile during the merry hockey month of May.
Injury Ward: Milan Lucic sat out the game with an upper body injury suffered against the Anaheim Ducks. Marc Savard and Blake Wheeler both played through injuries also suffered during that physical grudge match against the Ducks, and Savard said he’s okay “but not 100 percent”.
Player of the Game: Matt Hunwick, in a brilliant move by Julien, was pushed up to the first line wing in place of Lucic, and responded with a speedy skating presence that produced a goal and an assist. Hunwick had the aforementioned goal and an assist, was a +2 for the afternoon and provided an offensive spark along with defensive responsibility. Not bad for a natural defenseman pushed into an emergency role for the day. Savard said that skating on the same line with Hunwick reminded him of playing with the smooth-skating and skilled Marco Sturm.
“I thought there was a chance I might play forward but obviously the last time I did I was playing on the fourth line and tonight I was playing on Savvy’s line,” said Hunwick. “It wasn’t something I was expecting coming in here today, but it was a lot of fun to be out there with those guys.”
Goat Horns: It’s too bad because Tim Thomas was brilliant in many portions of the hockey game and stoned the Caps on several breakaway bids, but losing in overtime on an 80-foot dump-in shot by Alexander Semin is pretty tough to wrap the hockey brain around. Thomas said that the puck sailed a bit on him as it approached the net, but he didn’t offer any excuses for simply not stopping the long shot.
“That last goal was a bad goal, and he can say all the things that happened with the puck, but the bottom line is, you should tell yourself, ‘I should have had it, I didn’t have it, turn the page, and let’s move on,’ said Julien. “He’s given us too much to be worried about the negatives, and he’s been far much better than he’s been the other way.”
Turning Point: So many to choose from, but the Bruins undisciplined play led the high-powered Capitals PP attack to tally a pair of power play strikes in the first and third periods. That would be culprit number one when a big portion of Boston’s game plan was to stay out of the box against the Caps. Washington entered the game ranked third in the NHL in terms of power play success and are 13 for 25 in first period PP opportunities over their last 14 games.
“We kept going in the box. Like I said they’ve got too many skilled guys there to let them be on the power play,” said Savard, who took a hooking penalty that led to Washington’s first goal. “Their power play stays out there for two minutes and they move the puck pretty well. You know, if we see these guys down the road, we’ll have to take that into account again.”