BY MELISSA ZIELINSKI
The Washington Capitals were never given accolades for a defensive-minded game or for the presence of their physical play throughout the 2011-12 regular season. In fact it was something that they were criticized for at times. Entering the third game of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals versus the Boston Bruins tonight however, the Caps’ persona has changed.
For Washington the playoffs have shown a completely different Capitals team.
“Everybody’s on the same page right now,” said defenseman Mike Green. “That was one of the biggest things we needed to work on as a team.”
Besides entering a seven game series with a second-seeded Bruins team in a talented pool of Eastern Conference playoff qualifiers, the Caps also had no choice but to start out with a goaltender who had never stepped foot on National Hockey League (NHL) playoff ice.
In an unmistakably different atmosphere of a game, Braden Holtby (recalled by the Capitals on March 18 from Hershey of the American Hockey League [AHL]), was going to be backed up by a netminder who had just 14 minutes of “that atmosphere,” AHL recall Dany Sabourin.
The Caps’ outlook wasn’t bad, but it was a little uncertain.
There’s no question that Holtby is a rising Caps talent, but Boston is a team rich in the acknowledgements and awards categories:
Tied for second in the league in goals for (260) during the regular season, a 102-point regular-season finish (seventh in the league), a six-foot-nine, 255-pound captain that is an absolute presence on the ice, and of course, the 2011 Stanley Cup champions.
Despite sounding like a lot to muster up the confidence against, the Caps have pleasantly surprised by not only keeping up with the Bruins pace, but impressing their critics.
“I like our game right now,” said Green. “We’re confident in our system and what the coaches are putting in front of us and we’re definitely prepared.”
The Capitals’ defense, which has only allowed two goals against, blocked 49 shots and recorded 70 hits, “came at the right time.”
And all on the road.
With the defensive progression though, the Caps’ offense hasn’t faltered exactly, but it has struggled to contribute. Boston has only allowed two goals against and forced double overtime on Saturday after tying Game 2 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the third frame.
“It’s the playoffs and it’s grinding,” said blueliner Roman Hamrlik.
As Washington defenders continue to grind it out, all averaging nearly 15 minutes of ice time a game (four average 25 minutes of ice time), and frustrate their opponent, the offense must rise to the occasion too.
“We’re not scoring five or six goals either, so it’s maybe a little frustrating for us too,” said Green. “It’s so tight out there, the chances are here and there, there’s not much.”
For the time being, the defense will continue to do its job in a “battle of attrition,” but the Caps know they need to generate more offensively.
“We have to get more shots at the net and get some rebounds,” said Hamrlik.
The Capitals have proved that a little confidence in the defensive zone can counteract an inexperienced net. With a little home-ice insurance, it’ll be the offense’s turn to see if they can pick up steam.