When Dale Hunter was hired to revive the sputtering Washington Capitals in late November, the hope was that he would establish a defensive foundation — one that would be better suited to the grinding gantlet of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
A little less than five months later, when the Capitals entered the third period of Thursday’s Game 4 up by a goal against vaunted, higher-seeded Boston, Hunter’s system passed its biggest challenge to date.
While the Bruins created plenty of chances, Washington proved it could rely on gut-it-out team defense to support goaltender Braden Holtby when a high-stakes contest was on the line.
A dozen blocked shots, numerous foot races won to claim loose pucks and an uncanny effort to prevent a shot from reaching the Capitals’ goal in the final 7 minutes 13 seconds all contributed to the Capitals clinching a victory that evened this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Washington and Boston have two wins apiece heading into Game 5 Saturday in Boston.
“We’re just committed to helping our goalie out, committing to getting the puck out of our zone,” defenseman John Carlson said of the third period on Thursday. “Like when [Matt Hendricks] beat out an icing, which kills maybe 20, 30 seconds by the time they get back in our zone. Just little things like that help. It’s playoff time and you’ve got to be committed to the details, because those things matter. They matter a lot.”
The Capitals have blocked shots all series against Boston, ranking third among playoff teams with 41. Washington’s dramatic displays of selflessness were on display late in Thursday’s game as 12 of the team's 26 blocks came in the final frame; seven occurred in the last 9:18.
Perhaps none was more dramatic or critical than when Jay Beagle slid in front of a one-time blast from the point by Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuck with seven seconds left.
“That’s my job. I feel like when the coaches put me out there in the last nine seconds, you’ve got to do whatever it takes to block that shot,” Beagle said. “It knocked the wind out of me a little bit. It hit me kind of in the chest — but it’s a good sting. That’s why I play the game. To be out there in those pivotal moments, that’s the most fun.”
As Hunter leaned heavily on his third and fourth lines to thwart the waves of Boston’s attack — Troy Brouwer led all forwards with eight minutes of ice time in the third; Matt Hendricks was second with 7:02 — one player was noticeably absent in the final period.
Alex Ovechkin skated only 1:58 in the final frame of Game 4, appearing on the ice for just 15 seconds in the final 14 minutes.
Ovechkin said he didn’t receive an explanation why he spent the third period on the bench, but the star left wing didn’t require one, either.
Hunter on Friday attributed the captain’s low ice time to matching lines against the Bruins’ top units. Ovechkin’s linemates Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson played 6:12 and 3:52 in the third, respectively, but they were better suited to the defensive grind of those final 20 minutes.
Ovechkin seemed to understand that and appeared unfazed by the benching.
“Of course I understand and accept it. I want to be out there but, again, it’s his decision but we’re not going to be talking about it because it’s not time for this,” Ovechkin said. “We win the game, it’s most important thing right now. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to play 10 seconds or five seconds, most important thing is team result.”
Whether it’s Beagle blocking a shot, Hendricks racing to negate an icing, Brouwer hitting an opponent to force a turnover or Carlson or Karl Alzner making a clean clearing attempt, the Capitals will need to keep fighting for inches to win this series.
When it’s late in a close game, as all of the contests against the Bruins have been, those plays can mean the difference between a win or a loss.
Those plays also tell Hunter what type of team he has.
“The guys are committed. That puck hurts and you have [Bruins defenseman Zdeno] Chara, who shoots it over 100 mph, and they’re going down blocking shots,” Hunter said.
“They’ve got a lot of character in that room and they care about winning and losing.”