For the first two games of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal round series, the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals displayed a pedestrian style of hockey in comparison to the bloodbath wars taking place throughout the rest of the continent. Despite two hard-fought, solid games by both teams, they were losing headlines to the all-out brawls of San Jose-St. Louis, the bitter Pennsylvania rivalry of Pittsburgh-Philadelphia, the yanking of Roberto Luongo in Vancouver as they dropped three straight to Los Angeles, among others.
The Bruins-Caps series threatened to be decidedly clean, almost on par with the Tampa Bay-Boston Eastern Conference Finals from a year ago. In that series, the two teams fought for seven games in a relatively clean, well-skated series featuring great goaltending and great finesse skill. Although the goal tallies weren’t there, the end-to-end skating was, and it was shaping up to be something of an even-keel style game.
The problem in the first two games, to Bruins fans at least, was that there was something missing. Boston skated the last couple months with a couple of noticeable holes in their lineup, both figuratively and literally. Even though the stats were there, they felt, at times, like a team with a fatal weakness, one that hopefully didn’t cost them a chance at the Stanley Cup. Whether it was an occasionally-porous defense or the inability to fully close out certain games, there was still that one piece that resembled the exhaust portal on the Death Star, the place whereAlexander Ovechskywalker could blow up the whole damn thing.
Then, Game Three happened.
For the first 40 minutes-plus in Game Three, the Capitals had the Bruins’ number. The offense for the Caps was clicking, the power play finally breaking through (even though it was with Zdeno Chara in the box), and Ovechkin had a beautiful strike past Bruins netminder Tim Thomas. Even if the game was tied after two periods, the Bruins were playing from behind on the road, and it felt like they just weren’t going to get through Braden Holtby. Heck, they already had a gift goal earlier in the game.
If Washington just skated with the Bruins, they’d have won that game easily. They’d have taken the 3-2 lead, then been able to notch an empty-net goal to win 4-2 and take a 2-1 series lead. It seemed so simple, so basic, that any coach, player, or fan watching the game could see the blueprint. Outskate the Bruins, get them to do something stupid and impatient, then capitalize.
Instead, they poked the bear, woke it up, and find themselves in a series that could develop into the bloodbaths the other teams are experiencing.
There were the behind-the-whistle plays that took things too far and woke the sleeping animal. There was a “slash” to Brad Marchand, which is a nice way of saying he got speared in the shaboingaboings. There was the scrum that resulted in some taunting and facial expressions at Milan Lucic. There was the cross-check after the game was ending to Rich Peverley.
If the series remains straight up and the Bruins don’t get what is essentially the equivalent of getting poked in the eye by Curly Stooge, then they don’t go all Hulk Smash. There are a number of players on the Boston roster who disappear for extended stretches, and if the play is slow and muddy enough, they tend not to reappear. Lucic has played poorly, as has David Krejci. Marchand has been, by and large, contained, and Patrice Bergeron really hasn’t accomplished a whole lot.
The Bruins’ majority of production has come from the third line, involving Chris Kelly (who is a free agent at the end of this year and will make a lot of money from a fringe team like Dallas or Calgary) and Brian Rolston. With the top six bottled up, Washington’s been able to outplay the majority of shifts. The defense has worked just well enough to win two games, and Holtby has played well enough to win all three. The Bruins’ third line has faced the weaker pairings, which has helped. But the tops have done the job to win the games.
Instead, there’s the chance, now, that the Top Six wake up for Boston because they’ve been insulted. In particular, Brad Marchand and David Krejci responded so well last year when Nathan Horton went down, seizing the moment and delivering knockout blows. With Washington reeling a little bit after becoming unglued due to the fight late in the third, then the Chara bomb beating Holtby, they have to be careful to not let that overtake them.
The last seven or eight minutes of that game last night saw a total shift in the way the Capitals were playing the Bruins. It’s almost as if they knew they were playing better, and, instead of taking it to Thomas in net, they decided to taunt Boston. Boston’s too talented for that to happen. And if the series devolves from a finesse game, which Boston really struggles with this season for some reason, to an all-out, physical war, then the shift of momentum will go squarely up to Massachusetts.
The Bruins regained home ice with their Game Three win. It’s up to the Caps tomorrow to make sure this stays as a finesse-style game, play hard with urgency but not desperation, and, under no circumstances, let this become a physical brawl. They cannot win the series under those terms. And they might learn that the hard way if all their great play so far is undone by taunting the uncaged bear.