Mike Knuble turns back time for the Washington Capitals, as Braden Holtby grows up before our eyes

Mike Wise
Columnist April 21, 2012

Before Troy Brouwer rifled home the game-winning goal and made the arena go dead quiet, Braden Holtby said the shot that was supposed to be a goal for Boston’s Tyler Seguin — the one Holtby did the splits to stop point-blank in front of the net — would have got through if not for “the very tip of my toe — the end of my skate.”

This treasure of a series, for that matter, has been “like the edge of a knife,” said Mike Knuble. “It’s that close — one final bounce, one break here or there.”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Except when so many are going the Washington Capitals’ way at the moment, it feels like something is happening, something beyond heart and perseverance.

When Knuble, an all-but-released veteran winger, emerged from the coach’s doghouse at age 39 to put in a go-ahead rebound goal in the third period, when Holtby, a 22-year-old kid goalie, who was actually pulled from an American Hockey League game, oh, last month, outduels the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in net — when the Capitals withstand another gantlet of 108-mph slapshots from Zdeno Chara, medieval Shawn Thornton hits and breathtaking Tim Thomas saves, yet somehow never surrender the lead after the defending Stanley Cup champions come back to tie twice — it’s pretty clear:

The gods of grit are with you, and you might as well keep working and grinding so they stick around.

Three games to two, Dale Hunter’s converted dump-and-chasers.

One more win and the Great Eight and his learn-as-they-go grinders knock off a defending champion for the first time in franchise history.

The Caps have pushed Boston to the ledge after an absolute gem of a Game 5 at TD Garden, and now they have their crowd to help send the Bruins tumbling down — toward an early offseason the Capitals have known too well themselves for four years running.

And where to start except with Knuble, who had fallen out of favor with Hunter at the end of the season and only got on the ice this series because Nicklas Backstrom was suspended for Game 4. Former Bruin, former Flyer — a guy who demonstrated what Washington needed to win a series when he stood outside a victorious Philadelphia locker room in Game 7 of the first round at Verizon Center in 2008 and gave a TV interview with blood dripping from a stitched gash under his right eye — he refused to let his career die silently in Washington.

“Nobody likes to not play, nobody likes that at all,” Knuble said as the locker room cleared out. “You can call it the doghouse, you can call it the odd guy out, you can call it the numbers game — any way you want to sugarcoat it. But it sucks not playing. And when you get the chance to get in there, you try and do what you’ve done your whole life. And keep doing what you’ve always done.”

Sick to his stomach that his fourth line had given up a tying goal moments before, he got it back when Joel Ward played the angles and put a rocket off Thomas’s pads from the right side. Knuble cleaned it up for a momentary go-ahead goal.

Then Johnny Boychuk tied it again 8 minutes and 47 seconds into the third, upping the ante in an unbelievably taut game.

When Brouwer scored and the Caps had staved off the Bruins again despite being outshot again, the bench piled onto the ice in pure elation — a joy born not just out of the past two weeks but months of baby steps that ended up with so many bad falls.

“It took 60 games for Dale to get his system in there,” Knuble said. “It’s very conservative, much moreso than what we were doing there before when, you know, we were more offensively tilted. And now we’re a strong defensive team. It’s tough. You got offensive guys. You got guys who have made their careers playing offense. Now you’re asking them to block shots and dump pucks out when you’re so used to trying to make something happen.

“We’ve been successful in this series because to a man we’ve been buying in with that. Every guy.”

If it wasn’t Knuble turning back the clock, it was Holtby pushing it forward. With about nine games left in Washington’s season, he was trying to make Hershey matter. “My last game wasn’t very good against St. John’s,” he said, sheepishly, referring to the AHL game in March, when he was pulled after giving up five goals.

Asked if he had pinched himself yet in a series where he has beaten the Bruins three times — and made the most clutch postseason save for the Caps since Semyon Varlamov robbed Sidney Crosby in Game 1 of the 2009 Pittsburgh second-round series — he added, “We still got one game left. I can’t even think about that now. Nothing else matters.”

The same went for Knuble, who at 39, with a scar under his right eye slightly more visible than a smaller one, a pock mark under his left eye and the massive, weathered hands of a day laborer, smiled as if he were 22.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a bit happy,” he said. “But the prep begins after we get off the plane.

“There’s no better feeling — maybe the birth of your kid — than scoring a goal in a big playoff game,” he added. “Especially when you know you’re not going to be doing it forever. So when they do happen, third period on the road . . .”

The Bruins must feel like George Foreman in Zaire. They’re the big, bad heavyweight champions, landing all these bombs and just waiting for their besieged opponent to drop. And the Capitals keep bouncing off the rope a la Ali, exhausting Boston by simply repelling the Bruins’ own force.

Heading into Game 5, Boston had on average 10 more scoring chances in each of the first four games. The Bruins have had better scoring chances, too — rebounds that didn’t go in, crossbars that got in the way and, oh yeah, the histrionics of Holtby.

But they can’t shake the Capitals, who are suddenly on the precipice of their own history on home ice Sunday.

Like we said, something is happening here, something beyond heart and perseverance.

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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