BOSTON – The Washington Capitals – once the high-scoring, loosey-goosey, underachieving Washington Capitals – won the tightest playoff series in NHL history. They upset the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round.
And in the end, in overtime of Game 7, it wasn't their big names who made the big play at the big moment Wednesday night. It wasn't Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom or Alex Semin or Mike Green.
It was a couple of fourth-liners who have been in and out of the lineup. It was Mike Knuble, a 39-year-old who could have been playing his final NHL game, and Joel Ward, a 31-year-old who hadn't lived up to his four-year, $12 million free-agent contract.
This is the short version: Knuble blocked a puck at the Washington blue line, raced down the ice and fired a backhand shot. Goaltender Tim Thomas stopped it with his right pad, but he left a rebound. Ward backhanded it into the net 2:57 into OT.
Capitals 2, Bruins 1.
TD Garden was dead silent as the Capitals mobbed each other. A few yellow rally towels and beverage containers flew onto the ice as the fans filed to the exits.
"That wasn't pretty; that was beautiful," said Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. "I think winning any way you can is what playoff hockey is all about."
For the first time, all seven games of an NHL playoff series were decided by one goal. Four of the games went to overtime, and two others were decided with less than 2 minutes left in regulation. There was only one two-goal lead in the series, and it lasted all of 2 minutes and 54 seconds.
[Photos: Check out the best images from Game 7]
"We were 1 or 2 percent better in the series and got the final bounce," Knuble said.
That 1- or 2-percent difference goes back to big things like a gutsy decision, to little things like a text message. This is the deeper version:
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General manager George McPhee stood in a doorway at the side of the Capitals' dressing room, speaking quietly.
"We changed our style last year around December to be more committed defensively,” McPhee said. “It's paying off."
In 2009-10, the Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs to the suffocating Montreal Canadiens. They had skill, but they lacked defensive discipline and mental toughness – the kind of character considered necessary to win in the playoffs.
In 2010-11, HBO embedded cameras for its four-part, all-access reality series “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: The Road to the NHL Winter Classic.” The timing seemed terrible. The cameras caught the Caps scuffling during an eight-game losing streak.
But they also captured a meeting between McPhee and coach Bruce Boudreau in which they decided to abandon their wide-open ways in favor of a tighter style more conducive to playoff success.
“Adversity is a good teacher,” McPhee told Boudreau then. “This could be the best thing that ever happened to us.”
The Capitals rocketed back to the top of the East by the end of the season. They won their first-round series against the New York Rangers. Everything seemed to be going in the right direction.
But then the Capitals lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round, and McPhee made changes in the offseason. Among the departures: Jason Arnott, Scott Hannan, Marco Sturm and Semyon Varlamov. Among the arrivals: Ward, Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Vokoun.
[Puck Daddy: Listen to Capitals radio's crazy call]
After the Capitals opened the 2011-12 season with a seven-game winning streak, things fell apart. McPhee fired Boudreau. He brought in Dale Hunter, a legend as a Capitals player and as a junior coach/owner, but a rookie NHL coach. The hope was that Hunter's hard-nosed identity would rub off on the team.
It didn't work right away. It still isn’t working seamlessly. Hunter doesn't trust Ovechkin enough to give him superstar minutes – he gave him only 4:04 in the first period Wednesday night, only 9:37 through two, only 16:25 total – and no one knows whether he will stay in Washington or go back to his junior team in London, Ontario, when this is all over.
But the Capitals came together in this series in front of rookie goaltender Braden Holtby, thrust into the starting role because of injuries to Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. "They stuck to their game plan," Thomas said. "They made it very difficult for us to generate any offense or any momentum with the style that they played."
McPhee liked what he saw. No, he said he "loved" what he saw.
"It looked a lot different in the playoffs," McPhee said. "Some of the moves we made this summer were sort of playoff designed. While we weren't going to be as pretty in the regular season, we would be grittier, more committed in the playoffs, and that's what we were hoping to accomplish, and it worked for a round, at least."
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Knuble was a healthy scratch nine times in the regular season. He was scratched for the first three games of the playoffs, too. Ward was a healthy scratch at least seven times in the regular season.
Yet here they were on the ice in overtime. For every player, the series and season were on the line. For Knuble, his career might have been on the line. He will turn 40 on July 4. His production is down, and his contract is up.
The Bruins tried to fire the puck into the Washington zone, setting up a line change. The puck hit Knuble right in the shins. He skated ahead as fast as his old legs could carry him.
"I was going right to the crease with that one," Knuble said.
Ward was right behind him. After scoring seven goals and 13 points in 12 playoff games for the Nashville Predators last season, Ward landed his big contract – and scored only six goals and 18 points in 73 regular-season games for the Capitals. He struggled so badly at times, he said, "I thought I might have lost a little bit of respect from my own teammates."
But Wednesday afternoon, Ward received a text message from an old friend – former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes, now an analyst for CBC, NBC and NHL Network. Their parents had known each other in their former home of Barbados. They had grown up in the same neighborhood in Scarborough, Ontario. They had played street hockey together.
"We obviously go way back," said Weekes over the phone from Toronto. "I know his game inside out. … He's a playoff performer. Look at what he did for Nashville last year. At one point, he was leading the whole league in goals in the playoffs. So he's a guy that thrives in the big moments."
Weekes told Ward to visualize success, to visualize the moment, to visualize going to the net. Ward said he "just tried to follow that and roll with it." He followed Knuble to the net. The rebound popped out.
"I kind of saw it there," Ward said, "and just gave it one of the hardest whacks I've ever given a puck."
When the puck went in, the Capitals' bench emptied. Ward found himself surrounded by celebrating teammates along the boards.
"I've done it this way my whole life," Ward said. "I've always been the underdog. I've never considered myself being up there with the top guys, so to speak. So I've never doubted myself. I just really wanted to show the guys in this locker room, just to prove to them that I'm here to help them out."
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The Capitals are not used to being the underdogs. They are used to being the favorites and letting everybody down in the playoffs.
But now – after firing their coach, after fighting for a berth – they have become only the third No. 7 seed since the 2004-05 lockout to win a series, and they upset the defending champions. They earned the third Game 7 victory in franchise history against a team that became the first to win three Game 7s on the way to the Cup last season.
Suddenly, the playoffs are wide open. The last four champions have been eliminated: the Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings. So have the Vancouver Canucks, the Presidents' Trophy winners the past two seasons and a Cup finalist last year. So have the San Jose Sharks, the only team to make the conference final the past two years.
The New York Rangers, the East's top team this season, face elimination Thursday night in Game 7 against the Ottawa Senators.
The Capitals have a chance to go farther, and they might finally have the formula to do it.
"The other way didn't work, and so you have to try something different," Leonsis said. "We didn't know if this would work. We got through the first round. We did that last year.
"And so there's relief and joy, but there's a lot of work left to do. I'll think we've improved over last year if we can get to the second round."
Let's see if they can be 1 or 2 percent better again.
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