Big Game HunterPosted on April 27, 2012
A lot has been written (both positive and negative, and some of it right here) and said about Caps coach Dale Hunter’s personnel moves and ice time allocation since he took over as the team’s bench boss on Nov. 28. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with a majority of the buttons Hunter has pushed, he and his staff deserve their share of credit for the team’s first-round playoff series win over the Boston Bruins. Caps center Nicklas Backstrom was suspended for a game after the Caps’ Game 3 loss, a setback that put Washington down 2-1 in the series. Playing without their best center in Game 4, a loss would have put the Caps on the brink of elimination with the series headed back to Boston for Game 5. Hunter installed Mike Knuble – a healthy scratch in the first three games of the series – into the lineup for Backstrom in Game 4. He moved center Mathieu Perreault up to the second line and cobbled a fourth line of Knuble, Keith Aucoin and Joel Ward. Alexander Semin’s power play goal – with an assist from Alex Ovechkin – gave the Caps a 2-1 lead late in the second period of that critical Game 4. After his skilled players give Hunter’s team the lead, he went with his foot soldiers to protect it. Troy Brouwer led all Caps forwards in third period ice time with 8:00. He was followed by Matt Hendricks (7:02), Jay Beagle (6:36), Brooks Laich (6:12), Knuble (5:38) and Joel Ward (5:25). Ovechkin, Semin and Perreault were used sporadically. Karl Alzner (10:17) and John Carlson (8:52) ate up the lion’s share of the blueline minutes. It wasn’t a pretty third period of hockey, but the Caps got the job done. Looking back, that Game 4 win was the fulcrum of the series. Boston fired 34 shots in the third period to Washington’s five. The Capitals blocked 12 of those shot bids, and somehow kept the Bruins from getting any shots on goaltender Braden Holtby in the final 7:13 of the game. No Bruin forward put a shot on Holtby in the final 10 minutes of the contest. Hunter had something to do with the Caps tying the series that night, and he had something to do with them taking a 3-2 lead with a 4-3 win in Game 5, too. With the teams still scoreless in the middle of the second period of Game 5 in Boston, Hunter juggled personnel on three of his forward lines. He moved Marcus Johansson from the first line (with Ovechkin and Laich) to the second (with Backstrom and Semin), sliding Jason Chimera from the second to the third (with Beagle and Hendricks) and Brouwer from the third to the first. The effect was quick and positive. Within just a few shifts, Washington had taken the first lead of the game on Semin’s rebound goal. Beagle scored the Caps’ second goal shortly thereafter, forging – for a brief 2:54, anyway – the only two-goal lead either team would enjoy at any point in the series. Even with Backstrom back in the lineup for Game 5, Hunter kept Knuble in the lineup, electing to scratch Perreault instead. Hunter also kept the Knuble-Aucoin-Ward line together; it was the only trio to remain intact after his mid-game line juggle. Sure enough, Ward and Knuble combined to score the go-ahead goal in the third. Ward took the shot, Tim Thomas made the save and Knuble potted the rebound. In a span of just over 12 minutes, the Caps had gotten goals from three different lines. That same combination of Ward and Knuble worked in reverse to win Game 7 in overtime, Ward converting a Knuble rebound for the series win. “He’s just trying to find the optimal amounts of defense and offense on lines and make sure that everyone is being responsible out there,” said Brouwer of Hunter after Game 5, “especially in these tight games because one-goal late in games hasn’t been holding up as of late. He’s doing what he needs to do to try and win games.” Eliminating Boston required a team effort and that’s exactly what Hunter got from his players. Braden Holtby was excellent in goal. The team tightened up defensively in front of him; rebounds were routinely swept away and shots were frequently blocked in front. Odd-man rushes were few and far between. Penalties were efficiently killed at a rate of 91.3%. Facing a team that was 38-0-0 during the regular season in games in which it lead by two goals at any point, the Caps merely made sure the Bruins never had a two-goal lead at any point in the series. A dozen different Capitals combined to score the total of 16 goals the Caps tallied in the series. Eighteen of the 20 different Caps skaters who dressed during the series found the scoresheet. Washington managed only three power-play goals in the seven games of the Boston series, but two were game-winners and the other was the first goal of the game. In this series, game-winning goals were a legitimate stat and the first goal of the game was big. Six of seven times, the team that scored first won the game. The Capitals executed better offensively, defensively and on special teams. And Hunter put a lot of players in good position to have success. Knuble, Ward and defensemen Roman Hamrlik and John Erskine were all scratched from multiple games in succession during the second half of the regular season. And they all stepped up and contributed when it mattered against Boston. Although much was made in the media about Ovechkin’s reduced ice time against Boston, the Caps’ captain still led his team in scoring with five points (two goals, three assists) in a tight-scoring series, despite going up against Bruins blueline behemoth (and Norris Trophy nominee) Zdeno Chara and partner Dennis Seidenberg throughout the series. Ovechkin averaged less than 20 minutes a night against Boston, and should be fresh for the second round. He can play better than he did against the Bruins, and might fare better and be featured more prominently against a different opponent. Having won numerous individual accolades over the years, all that’s left for Ovechkin is the Stanley Cup. He’d rather play a few fewer minutes every night and win it than to play more and not win it. But that won’t stop scribes from asking about his reduced workload. Two springs ago, the Caps made an agonizing first-round exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens after rolling up 121 regular-season points and a Presidents’ Trophy. Ovechkin led the Caps in scoring in that series against Montreal, too. He had five goals and 10 points in those seven games. Washington scored 22 goals in those seven games, but only five players had more than one. The Caps outscored the Habs 22-19 and were gone from the postseason landscape before the end of April. The Caps got frustrated in that series against the Canadiens, and they didn’t seem to trust themselves, each other, or the way they played when they encountered adversity. This time around, the Caps outscored the Bruins by a razor-thin 16-15 in just the second playoff series ever to go into overtime of Game 7 with both teams having scored the same number of goals. They did it by playing the same way throughout every game, through every speed bump and shift in momentum. Now, the Caps hit the road for New York this weekend. Taking down the Rangers – the top regular season team in the Eastern Conference – will be a tall task, but Washington goes into that series with confidence, having already taken down the defending Stanley Cup champions. Defense seems to be winning in the 2012 playoffs; seven of the eight teams that advanced past the first round scored fewer goals than their vanquished foe did during the regular season. The Capitals have forged a firm team belief in their unwavering, tenacious and team-oriented brand of hockey. And they’ve gotten the positive results to affirm that belief. It certainly took a while. But the Caps seem to be playing the right brand of hockey at the right time of year.