April 27, 2012

In each of the previous four years, the Washington Capitals found themselves on the wrong side of the playoff equation no matter how high a wave they rode into the postseason. Each spring saw them unravel in the face of either a more experienced team or diligent underdogs who followed a game plan to maddening perfection.

By knocking out the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in seven games, the Capitals took a turn playing the role of clutch performers and spoilers to a higher seed.

This time, Washington was the team that didn’t waver from its simple, defensive brand of hockey. This time it was Washington that fought for every extra bounce and puzzled a favored foe.

“We needed to win a series like this, this franchise needed it,” General Manager George McPhee said. “I don’t know how we did it, but it was nice to see that go in. We needed it.”

Veteran right wing Mike Knuble added that, without the pressure of being favored, the Capitals could simply relish the opportunity they had and play without worrying about living up to various expectations.

“There are no monkeys on our backs here. This is a series here that we weren’t supposed to win,” Knuble said. “We were a little bit more of a nuisance to the two seed, being the seven seed, we were the ones that weren’t supposed to be there. . . . We were that 1 or 2 percent better in the series and got the final bounce. It’s one step for us. We got more steps to go, and this is the first big one that you have to have.”

Defeating the Bruins is certainly a significant start to the postseason, but as Knuble pointed out, there is little question the team is fixated on greater achievements further down the line. Moments after Joel Ward’s overtime goal clinched the series victory Wednesday night in Boston, players and management alike were turning their attention to what lies ahead.

The next hurdle is the New York Rangers. The Rangers advanced with a 2-1 victory over Ottawa in Game 7 of their first-round series. The top-seeded Rangers split the four regular season contests against Washington and this will be their third playoff series against each other in four years. Vezina finalist Henrik Lundquist will lead the way for the Rangers in their first second-round appearance since 2007-08.

Owner Ted Leonsis acknowledged that when the team hired Dale Hunter as coach it took a calculated risk in switching to a defense-first mind-set that was the opposite of the high-flying, offensive firepower that helped the team grow in popularity.

They’ve proven more than capable of executing the system, which frustrated the Bruins on a nightly basis, but the larger test will be whether the system helps Washington crack its invisible playoff ceiling: The team has not advanced to the conference finals since 1998, eight years before Alex Ovechkin’s rookie season.

“What we were doing before didn’t work so you have to try something different. We didn’t know if this would work,” Leonsis said. “We got through the first round, we did that last year. So there’s relief and joy, but there’s a lot of work left to do. I’ll think we improved over last year if we can get through the second round. That’s the goal year after year.”

How far the Capitals can go with their new philosophy remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt that the most consistent execution of Hunter’s systems this year came in the opening series against Boston.

Players from the top line to the fourth line blocked shots, dived to break up passes, chipped the puck up the boards and made safe, smart decisions while working as a group rather than trying to emerge as an individual hero. The defensive dedication not only helped keep the Bruins’ forwards at bay but provided valuable support to rookie netminder Braden Holtby, who has been superb but the bulk of the shots he faced came from the perimeter.

There’s little question in McPhee’s mind that the players have all bought into the plan of what type of team the Capitals are expected to be under Hunter.

“They really have. It’s one of the most committed groups we’ve ever had,” McPhee said. “They’ll do anything to win. They’re blocking shots, and they’re taking hits and putting the puck in the right places. That’s a real committed group. I love the way Dale’s coaching them.”

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