Joel Ward, who signed a $12 million, 4-year free-agent deal with the Capitals last summer specifically because of his playoff heroism with the Nashville Predators, scored the game-winner at 2:57 of overtime to send the Capitals into the second round in an upset win over the No. 2 seeded Boston Bruins.
Mike Knuble skated in on an odd-man rush with Greg Zanon back for the Bruins. He bulled his way to the net and made the kind of veteran play he's know for around the crease — stopping short and jamming his leg in between Tim Thomas's pads. (Interference? Perhaps, but uncalled.) Ward collected a loose puck and shot it past the Bruins goalie for the victory.
The teams traded regulation goals before it went to OT, guaranteeing that every game of the series would be decided by one goal, a new NHL record.
In the first period, Milan Lucic turned the puck over to Jason Chimera on the right wing, who smartly played it back to John Carlson at the point. Matt Hendricks gave Tyler Seguin a subtle pick to open up the shooting lane; Carlson fired, and it was Hendricks that tipped it home.
The Bruins equalizer came on a monstrous shift for their top line in the second period, pinning the Caps in their own zone.
Lucic hit defenseman Karl Alzner to spring the puck free, and then David Krejci dug it out of a scrum on the half boards before interfering with Alex Semin to open up a shot for Andrew Ference. Goalie Braden Holtby made a pad save … right to Johnny Boychuk, who blasted the puck past the Capitals netminder. As it trickled towards the goal line, Holtby waved at it with his stick rather than smothering it. Tyler Seguin broke free of an Alzner check and poked it home.
For Holtby, it was his third win in Boston against Thomas in the series, stopping 31 shots to lead Washington to the second round as a rookie.
For coach Dale Hunter of the Capitals, it's validation. The defensive system he implemented after replacing Bruce Boudreau finally took hold, as the Capitals out-defended one of the best defensive teams in hockey to win the series.
So did his team concept — the Washington Capitals just won a Game 7 in which Alex Ovechkin (16:25) had less ice time than Jay Beagle (16:39), and yet the captain was bellowing with excitement at the end.
For GM George McPhee, it's validation that he hired the right man for the job, at least for this round — and, more importantly, that his signing of Joel Ward finally paid dividends when it was supposed to count the most.
If the New York Rangers eliminate Ottawa in Game 7, they'll play the Capitals. If the Florida Panthers win over the Devils and the Senators defeat the Rangers, the Capitals play the Philadelphia Flyers. If the Devils win and the Senators win, then the Capitals will face the Devils as all four top seeds will have been eliminated.