BOSTON — The most unemotional man in North America finally raised his voice an octave between the third period and overtime of the most taut, pulsating NHL playoff series anyone could remember on either side.
“He simply said, ‘This is the best thing in the world when it comes to playoff hockey,’ Matt Hendricks said of Dale Hunter, the all-action, no-talk coach of the Washington Capitals. “He almost talked as if he was a player, which was very unique and outstanding to hear.”
Hendricks, standing in a jubilant locker room around 10:45 p.m., said it was the most animated Hunter has ever been with the team. “I think it was just his demeanor. You know, ‘We’ve made it this far. Let’s go out and win the game.’ ”
In the thunderclap moment Joel Ward punched home that Mike Knuble rebound, the Capitals incredibly seized Game 7 and this dead-even heirloom of a Stanley Cup playoff series, beating the Boston Bruins, knocking out a defending champion for the first time in franchise history.
Despite just a 2-7 Game 7 mark coming in, the Capitals actually had history on their side. They had Hunter, the only player in league annals to twice score the game-winning goal in overtime playoff games to end a series.
As a player then and as a coach now, The Eliminator had done it again.
Amid the nerves and the angst knowing one team would go home, he trudged nonchalantly around the TD Garden Wednesday, looking almost bored by it all. So unmoved by the moment, he could have been the Zamboni driver smoothing over a patch of ice instead of the coach of the road team playing a Game 7 on the home ice of the defending Stanley Cup champions.
“Don’t you feel pressure?” a team official asked.
“Pressure?” Hunter replied. “This is fun.”
“I just told them to go out there and have fun,” he said afterward on the dais, his defensive style finally vindicated in the most euphoric way possible.
This was a hairpin of a series, the first in league history to have all seven games decided by one goal. Four of the seven games went to overtime. Only once in 400-plus minutes of hockey did either team ever hold a two-goal lead — and Boston erased both in a mere 28 seconds in a beauty of a Game 5.
General Manager George McPhee’s decision to bring Hunter in after firing Bruce Boudreau in late November was a move said, in this space, to be the wrong one with two weeks to play in what looked like a depressing end to an underachieving season.
But if the Caps go even one more round, it’s going to be hard to back that theory.
They found themselves late and played with purpose and passion to get in. Then they played Hunter’s dump-chase-and-defend game as well as it can be played against the Bruins, using an economy of energy to poke pucks away at the last possible second in front of rookie goaltender Braden Holtby.
A word about Holtby: unflinching. At 22 years old, he was golden in goal — especially given his counterpart for Boston, Tim Thomas, was one of the top three goalies in the game and he saw and stopped 42 more shots than Thomas before overtime of Game 7.
He couldn’t be rattled, no matter what Boston did throughout the series.
Proof of the depth of their lines, Alex Ovechkin was limited to a scant two goals through seven games and often had defensive lapses that kept him off the ice when the game was tied or the Caps had the lead.
No matter. This was a series for the third- and fourth liners, and Ward and Hendricks, who deflected the Caps’ other goal in during the first period, were a window into the grit of a team that found a way to knock off Boston, who boasted four 60-point scorers and could play fast, disciplined or muck-it-up hockey.
If there was any doubt whether McPhee returns, this series erased all of it. A team official, on condition of anonymity, confirmed McPhee will be back as the team’s architect. Because he is under contract until the 2013-14 season, it was really not an issue.
But like every player McPhee brought in and had not panned out as many observers thought — including Ward, who makes $3 million per season — he justified his moves with this victory and the team’s switch to a more defensive style.
Heck, Ward just scored the $3 million goal. When Knuble gave him the puck afterward in the locker room, he held it with his left thumb and index finger and twirled it with his right hand as he answered questions by the locker room cubicle.
“The adversity helped, the roller coaster ride we’ve been through,” Hendricks said. “There’s something to say about that last month, last two months of the season where we’re fighting for a playoff spot and we’re digging deep. You know, we had a lot of conversations with each other as teammates. It’s just nice to feel that reward to know as of right now we’re going to the second round.”
Nice? In some ways, this run is completely unexpected, from nowhere. A year ago, the second round was almost expected — a rite of passage after the best record in the Eastern Conference. This year, it feels like a genuine surprise after such a maddening regular season.
Going forward — be it the Rangers, Flyers or Devils in the second round — it suddenly feels like no pressure at all.
It feels like Dale Hunter — The Eliminator then when he shocked the Montreal Canadiens with a game-winning goal as a Quebec Nordique in 1982 and sent home the most memorable goal in Caps history by beating the Flyers on a breakaway in 1988, and The Eliminator now as a coach of a Game 7 overtime winner — never felt any pressure to begin with.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.
More on the Capitals and NHL playoffs: