WASHINGTON — Braden Holtby isn’t the only eyebrow-raiser for the Washington Capitals so far in the playoffs. Get a load of this statement made by Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien: “They play a patient game.”
Patient? The Capitals? When’s the last time anyone said that?
Yes, there is a high-scoring team getting frustrated by tight checking in the Bruins-Capitals first-round series, but the role that has been played by Washington in recent postseasons now belongs to Boston. The defending Stanley Cup champions were second in goals-per-game with 3.17 in the regular season, but it’s taken two games with three overtimes for both teams combined to surpass that total.
After hosting a 1-0 single-overtime win in Game 1 and a 2-1 double-overtime loss in Game 2, the Bruins travel to the nation’s capital for Game 3 on Monday night and Game 4 on Thursday night. They spent Sunday’s off-day comparing the Capitals to — of all teams — the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are notorious for clogging up the neutral zone.
“Their system right now resembles a little bit to one of Tampa,” Julien said. “It’s something that we’re probably not used to seeing from Washington because it was not that same type of hockey that they played before … more of an up-tempo and more of offense going. Right now they’re just sitting back when we have the puck in full control of it, and they’re just waiting for their chances.”
The change didn’t happen overnight. Former coach Bruce Boudreau tried to get the Capitals to be more defensive-minded a year ago, and Dale Hunter has rammed the point home since replacing Boudreau in November.
Still, it’s a bit jarring to think of a team that features Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green as one that has truly become “patient” — and content to win low-scoring, one-goal games.
“It’s pretty funny that that’s what we’re getting now,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You can see going back to last year we’ve slowly been trying to work that into our game. We went from complete opposite ends of the spectrum where we just wanted to go the entire time, and it just wasn’t working out for us. It’s been a long transition, about a year and a half trying to get to that, but it’s nice that we can be referred to as that and get the job done patiently.”
So the Capitals are feeling good about their road split even though Ovechkin has but one assist and no goals through two games. Semin doesn’t have a point, but he uncharacteristically gave himself up to block Zdeno Chara’s shot in the first overtime Saturday, a moment that Ovechkin said had everyone laughing.
“Alex isn’t one to do that all the time,” Green said about Semin, “but when he shows that he can do that and he’s willing to do it, it brings us all up.”
The Capitals’ defensive tenacity has kept the Bruins from getting solid chances. None of Boston’s top seven point-scorers in the regular season has dented the score sheet thus far in the series.
“I think we may have frustrated them a little bit,” Washington forward Matt Hendricks said. “I think that they look at their team as a little bit more offensive. To keep to one goal each game is good for us, but we need to keep that going.”
Easier said than done. The Bruins eventually overcame the Lightning in a seven-game Eastern Conference finals series a year ago.
“We were able to find a way and eventually break them down,” Bruins forward Milan Lucic said. “And it’s things that you have to go through in a playoff series, and you have to adjust and we’ve got to take it upon ourselves to try to be better and try to create more.”
Naturally, goals are going to be scarce only if the goaltenders are playing well. That was expected of Boston’s Tim Thomas, the reigning holder of the Vezina and Conn Smythe trophies, but the 22-year-old Holtby has been every bit of Thomas’ equal.
Making his playoff debut because of injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, Holtby has stopped 72 of 74 shots and hardly shows the demeanor of someone who has played in only 21 regular season games. Even though Neuvirth’s leg left injury is improving, Hunter surprised no one Sunday when he declared: “Holtsy’s our goalie.”
Holtby speaks as someone who’s been doing this his whole life. It’s a calm mindset that developed after losing playoffs series in the juniors and the minors.
“You learn more from losing than you do from winning most of the time,” Holtby said. “I did some things wrong. I had a long time to look at it and figure out what I could do better, and I think I was putting too much emphasis on the playoffs and changing everything up. This this year I’m just trying to keep the same routine, keep the same mindset that I’ve had throughout the year and see where it takes us.”