It just might be that the Washington Capitals have the Boston Bruins right where they want them. After the Caps somehow beat the defending Stanley Cup champions, 2-1, Thursday night in a nearly hysterical Verizon Center, the Bruins find themselves in a daunting position.
To win this series, they’re going to have to win at least one more game at home.
A ludicrous notion? Perhaps. But after the completion of Thursday night’s games, road teams were 21-11 in these NHL playoffs. The only reason the gap is that close is that the Caps and New Jersey Devils overcame home-ice disadvantage Thursday to win a Game 4 and tie their series at 2-2.
Right now, the Bruins find themselves in a predicament not unlike the one the Caps faced two years ago against the Montreal Canadiens. They’re supposed to win this series, based on their status as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and as current holders of the Stanley Cup.
It is worth remembering that Washington has played four Game 7s at home in the last five seasons — and lost three of them. A Game 7 in Boston might be a blessing. There’s no doubt who would feel the pressure most in that game.
In addition to the road-ice advantage, the Caps — right now — have the advantage in goal.
Braden Holtby, not the Vezina Trophy-winning veteran Tim Thomas, has been the star of this series. At 22, Holtby has been the calm in the storm around his net.
“When your goalie is back there making saves like that and looking under control that way, it has a settling effect on a team,” said forward Brooks Laich, whose superb pass set up Marcus Johansson’s goal less than 90 seconds into the game Thursday, giving the Caps a critical fast start. “Holts is going to get a lot of the credit and he deserves it.”
The Bruins fired 45 shots at Holtby and he stopped 44 of them. He was, as Laich noted, aided immeasurably by a defense that didn’t allow the Bruins the “net-front presence” their Coach Claude Julien says they must have to win the series. The presence of tough-checking defenseman John Erskine, back in the Capitals lineup for the first time in more than two months, helped. So did the fact that Holtby didn’t give up a lot of rebounds.
As often as the Bruins shot the puck, there weren’t very many times when Holtby wasn’t on his skates staring right at the shot as it came in his direction. The one thing goalies plead for all the time is a chance to see the shot.
“There’s nothing better than playing in front of a goalie who makes a tough glove save, hears the whistle, drops the puck and leans on the top of the net,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Their other goalie, Tuukka Rask, does it that way. It doesn’t feel good when it’s the other guy, but when it’s your guy, it’s great.”
Which leads to what may be the key question as the teams head back to Boston Saturday: Is Holtby inside the Bruins’ heads? David Krejci, who scored 23 regular season goals for Boston but has yet to score in the playoffs, used words such as “need to relax” and “don’t panic” in the Bruins locker room after Game 4. While most of his teammates — and most of the Caps — shrugged off the notion that a hot goalie can get into shooters’ heads, Krejci’s honesty may have been a clue to how the Bruins are feeling.
Usually in life, the thing you do immediately after you tell yourself not to panic is panic.
“I’m not exactly someone who gets stoned by goalies a lot,” said Alzner, who scored one goal this season, with a grin. “But I do know when you’re peppering a goalie and not scoring it does get frustrating. You find yourself thinking, ‘Come on, we’ve got to get the puck in the net.’ I think it can affect you, definitely.”
Two years ago, Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak got inside the Caps’ heads and it led to a stunning seven-game loss for the team with the best record in hockey. The most extreme example of a goalie almost single-handedly beating a heavily favored team may have been Ken Dryden’s performance for another Canadiens team 41 years ago.
Dryden was a 23-year-old rookie and had played in just six regular season games. But he stunned the Bruins, who were the defending Stanley Cup champions and were led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. The Canadiens won Game 7 in that series — in Boston.
Holtby, who played in seven regular season games this winter, has seen Dryden play goal on NHL Classic.
“He was really something,” Holtby said Thursday night with a smile and a shake of his head. “I read his book [“The Game”], too. The guy was way too smart to be a goalie.”
Holtby may never be elected to Parliament in Canada as Dryden was after leading the Canadiens to five Stanley Cups — the first one in 1971. But no one in the Caps locker room cares very much about that right now. They would happily settle for Holtby matching what Dryden did against the Bruins all those years ago. That would be plenty smart enough for all of them.