On Hockey: Capitals need to create more offensive chances against Bruins

The Washington Capitals did just enough Thursday to give optimists reason to believe this will be a long series.

But they also struggled just enough to provide skeptics with ample evidence to build a strong case to the contrary.

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Capitals 2012 playoffs shot-by-shot
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Capitals 2012 playoffs shot-by-shot

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Let’s start with what went right for Braden Holtby and his teammates.

No one knew how Holtby would handle the pressure of his first NHL postseason start. But after the 22-year-old rookie made 17 stops in the second period of Game 1, including two on Rich Peverley from point-blank range as the Bruins pressed on the power play, now we know. He’s ready.

“We told you he was going to be a good goalie,” Capitals winger Matt Hendricks said.

Holtby accepted blame for Chris Kelly’s overtime winner, but, as injured veteran Tomas Vokoun once said, “when you don’t score, it’s tough to win.”

The Capitals also played a defensively sound game. Boston’s 3.17 goals per game was tied for second in the league in the regular season, yet Tyler Seguin and the rest of the Bruins’ versatile and deep lineup was limited to six even-strength scoring chances in 60-plus minutes.

In addition to blunting Boston’s speed through the neutral zone and limiting its space in the offensive end, the Capitals also blocked 22 shots, including nine in the first period. The effort was led by Roman Hamrlik, who blocked five, and Troy Brouwer, who thwarted four.

The upbeat vibe in the visitors’ dressing room at TD Garden after the game might turn out to be as important as anything that unfolded during the contest. In past playoffs, the Capitals likely would have allowed a crushing overtime defeat to carry over into the next day’s practice and, potentially, the next game.

That won’t happen this time. In the unfamiliar role of the underdog, they were loose before the game and confident after it.

“We bent but we didn’t break,” forward Brooks Laich said. “In the third period, we outshot them 9-3 and I really liked our chances going into overtime. So, it’s Game 1, there’s a lot of hockey left and we’ll come back to the rink excited to practice, get back at it in Game 2.”

Alex Ovechkin added: “We know we can play against them. It’s nothing special out there. We just have to stay focused.”

Now, for the areas of concern.

They’ve got to find a way to create more opportunities in the offensive end. The nine scoring chances they mustered (on 17 shots) simply won’t be enough against Tim Thomas.

In Game 2, they’ll need more shots and traffic in front of the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. Thomas will stop just about every puck he sees clearly, but he is susceptible to overcommitting on shots and is easily agitated, particularly by contact in the crease.

“We just have to find ways to get [the puck] to the net and get in front of the net,” forward Jay Beagle said. “It’s going to be greasy, dirty goals. It’s not going to be pretty. We have to find a way to get to the net more, create more traffic and get more shots.”

If Coach Dale Hunter decides to keep his lines intact for Saturday’s matinee, the Capitals’ top unit of Ovechkin, Laich and Brouwer will have to be better.

Ovechkin in particular must fight harder to find room to maneuver and get off his lethal wrist shot, even if defensemen Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg are in his face every shift. The first line’s only scoring chance, it must be noted, was on a shot by Ovechkin in the third period, and it came with Chara in the penalty box for cross checking.

Laich can help Ovechkin by being better in the circle against faceoff specialist Patrice Bergeron. Laich won only seven of his 26 draws, which left Ovechkin chasing the puck more than he possessed it.

This one might be harder for the Capitals to fix: They tried to match the Bruins’ bruising physicality but couldn’t. Ovechkin dished out a game-high seven hits, but he was on the receiving end of just as many, if not more. The final tally had the Bruins, who rank right up there with the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, outhitting the Capitals 40-29.

Over the course of a long series, that’s going to take its toll.

“They have a ton of skill and the way to slow them down is to be physical,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. “We have a physical team and when we’re playing that way, we’re playing our best hockey.”

The Capitals, meantime, weren’t far from being at their best.

Game 1 could have gone either way. But if Ovechkin and Co. have any hope of winning the series — and answering the skeptics — they need Saturday to go theirs.

 
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