In a series that has gone as this one, it only makes sense that the bumpers and grinders would have the final say. In the series’ seventh and deciding game, the much maligned Joel Ward, who scored only a paltry six goals all season long, struck at 2:57 of the first overtime period to send the Capitals to the second round.
Matt Hendricks would start the scoring in the first period, tipping a John Carlson slap shot past Tim Thomas. The deflection was Hendricks’ first goal of the series (assists: John Carlson, Jason Chimera). Braden Holtby, no longer surprising anyone, stopped all eleven shots he faced in the period, eventually stopping thirty-one of the thirty-two sent his way.
Tyler Seguin, continuing his momentum from the game six overtime winner, scored an uncharacteristically gritty goal in front of the net at 14:27 of period two. His second goal of the series tied the game at one (assists: Johnny Boychuck, Andrew Ference).
The third period, though Washington fired twelve shots on goal to Boston’s six, yielded no scoring. Thus, for the fourth time in seven games, overtime would be required to determine a winner. As has been the theme in the series’ overtimes, it did not take long to decide a winner. Nearing the three minute mark of overtime, Mike Knuble took the puck and drove hard to the net, ignoring the defenders hacking and whacking at his arms and legs. While his net front bid for a series winner was denied by Tim Thomas, the rebound bounced right to Joel Ward who, with a single swing of his stick, silenced his critics and sent the defending champions packing. Ward’s first and only goal of the series (assist: Mike Knuble) was arguably the biggest of his career.
Braden Hotlby was inarguably the Caps’ MVP of the series. Defying those who told him that the stage was far too big, he posted a dazzling .940 save percentage and a 2.00 goals against average en route to a 4-3 record. In winning Wednesday’s contest, Holtby became the first rookie netminder to win a game seven since Buffalo’s Steve Shields did so in 1997. While Hotlby’s first round performance is the stuff of legend, he did not do it by himself. Many other Capitals elevated their game in a successful effort to bring the team a much needed victory against a higher seeded opponent.
Alexander Ovechkin scored two goals and added three assists in seven games. While those are not typical Ovechkin numbers; one must look beyond them to see his true impact on the series. Consider, for a moment that he spent the entirety of the series matched up on Boston’s top defensive tandem of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. Chara is arguably the best defenseman in the NHL and Seidenberg is perennially underrated and played above and beyond even his considerable ability. Given that, I would say that five points in seven games is nothing to scoff at. Ovi’s impact goes deeper still. By being matched on Chara and Seidenberg, he essentially neutralized them. Boston’s head coach, Claude Julien reserved his top defensive pair specifically for Ovechkin. And, of course, if they’re on the ice to deal with Ovechkin, they could not be on the ice for Backstrom and Semin.
Speaking of Alexander Semin, his play in this series was nothing short of a revelation. Used to seeing a pure offensive talent, Caps fans must have been stunned to see him hitting, blocking shots, and playing solid defense. Surprising though it was, he did just that in addition to scoring three clutch goals. These seven games opened many eyes, including my own, as to what Alexander Semin can be when he tries. The mysterious yet immensely talented forward frustrates fans and coaches as often as he wows them with his skill but if Semin can put forth this kind of effort moving forward in the postseason, the Caps’ front office may be forced to keep him around for at least another year.
Nicklas Backstrom, for many of the same reasons as Alexander Semin, was spectacular during the first round. With a critical overtime goal and three assists, Backstrom’s offense was where it needed to be. His level of grit, however, was above and beyond where anyone expected it to be. Backstrom does not exactly have a reputation for being a hitter but, throughout the series, he was throwing his body at anything that moved, going toe to toe with Boston’s tough guy Milan Lucic on more than one occasion. He even got a suspension! The suspension, obviously, was not ideal but what it represents is. After several playoff disappointments in Backstrom’s young career, it looks as if he has had enough and is willing to do whatever it takes to win.
It was not just the team’s stars that stepped up in the first round. Perhaps the hardest working Capital in the series was Hershey call up, Jay Beagle. As expected, he was physical, played solid defensive hockey, and was a stalwart on the penalty kill. His one goal was a particularly important bonus as, in the playoffs, third and fourth line scoring often determines the outcome of the series. Beagle’s strongest contribution to the team’s effort was in the faceoff circle. Very often matched up against Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, one of the best centers in the league, Beagle won 62.5% of his faceoffs. It’s not a sexy statistic but faceoffs determine possession. A team cannot score when they don’t have the puck. And considering the Bruins’ offensive output during the regular season, Beagle’s efforts in winning faceoffs was nothing short of essential to the Capitals success in the series.