Monday, April 23, 2012
Caps' transformation working well
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
ARLINGTON, Va. -- It's still a bit difficult to reconcile this grinding, hard-nosed version of the Washington Capitals to earlier, high-flying, playoff-crashing versions.
But the fact this current, albeit less flashy, model is still around and preparing for a seventh game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins suggests change isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The Caps and Bruins have waged a back-and-forth battle, each game decided by one goal, the first time in league history the first six games of a series have been decided by the slimmest of margins.
The biggest lead at any one time has been two goals, and that lasted exactly 2:54.
With a chance to eliminate the Bruins at home on Sunday, the Caps battled back three times from one-goal deficits only to see Tyler Seguin score on a nice move in overtime to send the series to Game 7 Wednesday night in Boston.
"We gave them too many chances. When you give a team too many chances, they end up in the back of your net sometimes," said defenseman John Carlson, one of two Capitals made available to the media on Monday.
"We showed a lot of courage out there. I think that we came back three times and that's huge for our team. We know that we can come back on these guys and we know that we're better off in the lead, so we know it's one thing we have to work on for next game."
The last time the Capitals faced a Game 7 situation was in the first round two years ago. That was the old Caps team. Under former head coach Bruce Boudreau, they had set franchise records with their explosive offense and won the Presidents' Trophy in a landslide. Boudreau introduced a different defensive scheme midway through that 2009-10 season, but the Caps still blew a 3-1 series lead against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens and lost Game 7 at home.
This season, after firing Boudreau, the Capitals became a much more defensive-oriented, hard-checking team. But after sneaking into the playoffs late in the regular season as the seventh seed, few observers gave the Capitals much chance against a Bruins team that last spring won its first championship since 1972.
Now Hunter, who participated in four Game 7s as a player, is hoping his players will embrace the opportunity and not worry about the missed opportunity in Game 6.
"The guys are character guys, you know, both teams," Hunter said Monday. "They're going to go out and play Game 7 like Game 7 should be, all about excitement; you can't wait for the game to get started. You guys, too I bet, you can't wait, you want to play it."
Certainly this is a well-worn path for the Bruins.
The Bruins defeated Montreal, Tampa and Vancouver in the final in seven-game sets last year, the first two at home.
Not that Carlson feels that has much bearing on what might happen Wednesday.
"Game 7's Game 7, no matter how you look at it," Carlson said. "I don't think you need to play in a hundred to be the best in a Game 7. Right now, we're worried about ourselves and the way we're going to play. Whatever game it is, we're playing to win."
One of the players who has enjoyed new responsibilities and a new profile with the Capitals is defensive specialist Jay Beagle.
"Obviously, with the opportunity to play more, it's a chance to step up and just try and come out and play your best and just really try and help my team win every night," Beagle said.
"I love to penalty kill and when you get a lot of penalty-killing time, I really try and take pride in killing those penalties off and getting the job done. It's a part of my game that I've really worked on over the last four or five years, when I was in the minors and getting called up and down."
The Capitals have terrific killing penalties, allowing just two Boston goals on 20 opportunities.
Of course, the key to that penalty kill, with all due respect to Beagle, who has won 53 of 86 faceoffs taken this spring and is among the league leaders in faceoff efficiency, is rookie netminder Braden Holtby.
Holtby leads all NHL netminders in ice time this spring and has turned in a sparkling .935 save percentage while playing two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas to a standstill in his first NHL playoff action.
Beagle said he believed Holtby was made of stern stuff, but even he's been surprised at the poise of the 22-year-old native of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan.
"With each game, and just seeing how tight these games are and a lot of them going into overtime, seeing him just continue to excel under the pressure is something I didn't really expect. He's really just a lot mentally stronger than I thought," Beagle said.
"The pressure does not seem to affect him at all. That's great for a young goaltender to come in and to have these games be so tight and to go into overtime, and just to have him so positive and just not let anything rattle him, it's great to see and it's what you need from a goaltender. He just continues to stand on his head for us and play great."