BOSTON — For the second straight game in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, the Washington Capitals demonstrated their ability to play gritty team defense and rookie goaltender Braden Holtby proved he’s more than capable of strong performances in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And this time, when the contest against the Boston Bruins went to double overtime, it would be the Capitals who emerged with a crucial 2-1 victory, evening the series as it shifts to Washington for Games 3 and 4.
Nicklas Backstrom scored 2 minutes 56 seconds into Saturday’s second overtime to seal a gutsy win that featured fearless shot-blocking, offensive patience and a strict dedication to defensive priorities. The Capitals now have an immeasurable boost in this series, both tactically and emotionally.
“It’s huge. From a statistical standpoint you look at this and now we have home-ice advantage,” said Holtby, who was outstanding in stopping 43 of the 44 shots he faced. “That’s a huge game as opposed to having to go home and really have to at least take one and probably two, if we would have lost tonight.”
The win also may give pause to anyone who thought the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins would roll easily through this opening-round matchup against Washington, which never doubted it could hold up against them.
“I don’t know why anyone thought we wouldn’t be able to,” said Troy Brouwer, who scored Washington’s first goal of the game. “We played so well against them in the regular season. Every team’s got another gear in the playoffs. But we’ve played great defensively in the last two games; we were patient. We kept pucks in good areas. We didn’t turn pucks over.”
In addition to the overall strength of the Capitals’ play as a cohesive unit, it seemed fitting that the hero of this particular triumph was Backstrom.
Washington waited nearly three months and 40 games this season for its top center to return from a concussion, assuring anyone who would listen that it was a different club with the 24-year-old Swede healthy and on top of his game.
Saturday’s tilt was only his sixth game back in the lineup, but an outsider might not have noticed as Backstrom weaved past Bruins defenders and drove to high-traffic areas of the ice throughout the contest.
The play that resulted in the game-winner began with Marcus Johansson losing an offensive-zone faceoff, but the Bruins didn’t gain clean possession of the puck. Johansson fought off Johnny Boychuck and Andrew Ference to retrieve the loose puck and feed it smoothly to Backstrom atop the left circle.
After trying to settle the puck down, Backstrom fired a shot past Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas (37 saves) while using Ference as a screen.
“I was just trying to get it on net; I think the puck was wobbling a little bit. I don’t know if it changes direction or whatever, but it was nice to see it go in,” Backstrom said. “I was kind of tired there. It’s going to be like this every game, I think.”
After being shut out and only taking 17 shots in Game 1, the Capitals knew they needed to find ways to create more offense — to challenge Thomas, but also to lessen the pressure on 22-year-old Holtby.
Washington followed through by putting bodies in front of the Bruins’ net and searching for the greasy goals and fortuitous bounces that dominate playoff highlights. The Capitals took their first lead of the series and the game late in the second period by following that blueprint.
A shot by Alex Ovechkin high along the left side boards bounced off Bruins defenseman Greg Zanon and into the blue paint. Brouwer poked it past Thomas before the goaltender could smother the puck. It may have been a lucky bounce, but it created a 1-0 Capitals lead with 2:03 remaining in the second period.
In the third, the Bruins pressed, and play between the two teams opened up more than it had in any point in the series so far. After Holtby made numerous quality stops in the first half of the period, Boston third-line winger Benoit Pouliot made it 1-1, 12:13 into the third. After a pass by Brian Rolston deflected off Jeff Schultz and left the puck loose in the slot, Holtby tried to come out and poke-check it away, but Pouliot beat him to it and chipped it past the netminder.
The Capitals did not show signs of nervousness as the third period continued, and overtime brought a renewed defensive effort from the entire group. On each shift, everyone from forward Alexander Semin to defenseman Karl Alzner and all those in between could be seen diving to block shots or break up Boston passes to derail offensive threats until they cashed in on one of their own.
Those efforts spoke to the type of hockey this year’s Capitals intend to play throughout the postseason, and their commitment to doing so.
“We got character guys in there. They’re going out — from everybody, from the goaltending to ‘D’ to forwards — they’re battling, playoff hockey,” Coach Dale Hunter said. “That’s the way you have to play to do well in the playoffs, is to battle. I thought tonight was definitely a playoff-hockey type game.”