April 16 vs. Boston Bruins at Verizon Center
Time: 7:30 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Two-Man Advantage at 3:00 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 3:00 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (42-32-8), 92 points
Boston Bruins (49-29-4), 102 points
Game 3, Eastern Conference quarterfinal series (series is even at 1-1)
Stanley Cup playoff hockey returns to F St. on Monday night when the Capitals host the Boston Bruins in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Both previous games went into overtime with each team winning once. Of the 144 minutes and 14 seconds of hockey played in the series to date, the score has been tied for 129 minutes and 58 seconds, the equivalent of more than two regulation games.
Leads and goals have both been hard to come by in this series, but one thing is for sure: one of these two teams is going to have a 2-1 series lead by game’s end.
After losing Game 1 by a 1-0 count in overtime, the Caps made some subtle adjustments to positive effect and a Game 2 win. Those adjustments included Caps coach Dale Hunter sliding forward Marcus Johansson alongside Nicklas Backtrom and Alexander Semin on the team’s second line, a move that paid dividends in Saturday’s Game 2 when Johansson fed Backstrom for the double-overtime game-winner.
The Capitals also got more shots from the point – 11 of 14 shot bids from the defense made it to the net as opposed to just two of 16 in Game 1 – and more bodies and pucks to the net.
With the series even and the Caps having wrested home ice advantage away from the Bruins, it’s Boston’s turn to adjust.
Given the tenor of post-game and off-day quotes emanating from the Boston room, expect the B’s to start crowding Caps goaltender Braden Holtby, he of the 72 saves on 74 shots faced in the first two games of this ultra-tightly played series.
The Bruins scored 260 goals during the regular season, tied for second in the league. They’ve managed just two thus far in this series, and that’s not sitting very well with the defending Stanley Cup champs.
Goals in this series have been only a bit more hard to come by than saves in the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series. Each team has tallied just twice. The Caps have gotten one goal from each of their top two lines while Boston’s top two units have been dry; each of the Bruins’ goals came from the team’s third line.
Boston led the NHL with six 20-goal scorers during the regular season. Five of those players reside on the top two lines. The Caps have kept them down for two games, but Washington should expect the best it has seen yet from Boston’s top six forwards in Game 3.
Control of the series is at stake.
“We talk about net-front presence and too much of it is not better,” said Bruins head coach Claude Julien on Sunday. “Sometimes we had too much of it which, [the Capitals] are really covering us well, and when you have about five bodies in front of the net [it’s] pretty hard to get a puck through. You’ve got to have net-front presence at the right time and you’ve got to be able to make some plays in the area.
“We give them credit, they’re doing a good job of really protecting the front of the net and protecting their goaltender and trying to minimize the shots getting through. We’re going to make some adjustments here to try and rectify that.”
Expect more net-front presence, more physicality, and more involvement from Boston’s top six forwards on Monday. And expect the Caps to realize that it’s coming.
“It’s about recognizing that they’re going to front of the net early and then boxing them out,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, who has been at the top of his game thus far in the series. ”[The officials] let a lot more go in the playoffs, so you can afford to start your box out five or six feet way from the net and then have that space to hold them up. And then just blocking [shots].
“We’ve been doing a good job of blocking shots, so if they do beat us to the net we’ve just got to get in the way of the puck and stand in front instead of behind them if you can, knock it down, and hopefully beat them up the ice.”
Boston has fired 74 shots at Holtby, but 49 more have been blocked in front of him. Just as important, defensive breakdowns have been few and far between – on both sides – and odd-man rushes even more scarce.
“It’s a defensive battle and that’s the way playoff hockey is played,” notes Caps center Jay Beagle. “There’s not that many odd-man rushes and the goals are not pretty when they come.
“It’s a defensive game. The series is going to be tough, it’s going to continue to be like that and it’s going to be tough to get goals. We’ve just got to continue getting it to the net and really crashing the net and causing traffic and havoc in front of the net.”
Holtby has been excellent, and his teammates love his compete level and love playing in front of him. It shows in their defensive mindset and efforts.
“You saw the blocked shot totals, it’s a big thing,” says Holtby. “When you see the odd-man rushes, there really haven’t been any. That’s usually attributed to the force of your forwards coming back, the high pressure and giving your defensemen time to gap up. It’s been outstanding.”
Holtby made a poke-check bid on a loose puck in the third period while his team was nursing a 1-0 lead in Saturday’s Game 2, and the puck wound up in the Washington net when Boston’s Benoit Pouliot got there first.
Even though he was a bit physically rattled on the play, Holtby didn’t show it. And he shut the door the rest of the way.
“That’s how he is,” says Caps center Brooks Laich. “He is a very composed and calm kid. He’s not coming into the series feeling a lot of pressure. He’s just coming in and playing his game and we have a lot of confidence in him. He is going to make the save he’s covering rebounds, he’s kicking things to the corner. If there is anything else, our defensemen are doing a good job clearing their guys out of the [front of the] net, and clearing the puck. He’s played great, and I hope it continues.”
Hockey is a game of mistakes, and there simply haven’t been very many of them on either side in the first two games of this series. Hence, the total of just four goals combined by both clubs.
“There have been few mistakes,” says Alzner. “There have been scoring chances, but there hasn’t been anything too glaring. There have been a couple of missed passes or bad passes thrown, but there haven’t been big defensive collapses.
“I think that’s because when you watch replays of the game or the video, that all five guys are down low helping out. Boston brings their centermen below the goal line a lot just to help out, and we have all five guys crashing in front of our net. It’s just playoff hockey. Nobody wants to make that mistake so everybody is coming back and trying that much harder in the defensive zone.”
Washington experienced a lot of ups and downs during the regular season, and it has known a great deal of playoff disappointment throughout its history, but perhaps more keenly in the last three or four springs. The stifling style the Caps are playing now is better suited for the Stanley Cup playoffs, and Saturday’s win was a validation of that.
“We’ve been working on it obviously since day one,” says Washington blueliner John Carlson. “Over the past few months, we’ve been doing a good job. It seems like that’s the way this series has been so far; everyone is pinching down defensively and people are coming up big with [shot] blocks and obviously unbelievable goaltending.”
Now, the trick is to keep it going against a seasoned Boston club that is seemingly growing more antsy as the series progresses.
“I think we may have frustrated them a little bit,” admits Caps forward Matt Hendricks. “I think that they look at their team as a little bit more offensive and to keep them to one goal each game is good for us. But we need to keep that going. I think we need to stay out of the penalty box. Our penalty kill has done well, and [Holtby] has been outstanding.
“Those have been our recipes for success, we just need to keep playing that way.”