- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If there’s anything we’ve learned over the years watching the Washington Capitals in the playoffs, it’s not to jump to any conclusions. The Caps are the ultimate it-ain’t-over-till-it’s-over team, and I won’t pick off any scabs by getting more specific.

Still, you have to be encouraged, at the very least, by what we saw in the first two games against the Bruins in Boston. In a pair of overtime white knucklers — one won, one lost — the Capitals played the kind of gritty, anything-but-pretty hockey that may not appeal to their vanity but has proved highly successful in the postseason.

At times, you found yourself thinking: “Who are these guys in the white jerseys who are being so … responsible?” We’re just not used to seeing the Caps go into OT tied 0-0 or 1-1. They just haven’t had the discipline — or maybe the attention span — to buckle down that long on defense. Heck, even Alexander Semin was getting in the spirit of things and blocking shots. And as Mike Green said Sunday at Kettler Iceplex, “Alex isn’t one to do that all the time.”

Does this mean the Capitals finally have gotten the message, that after four years of playoff disappointments they’re ready to put aside their sophomoric ways and do whatever it takes to win the Stanley Cup? Or is this just another tease, like Marilyn Monroe on the steam grate or (updated analogy coming) Charles Barkley in spike heels?

We won’t know, of course, until this series is over — and even then we might not know. After all, knocking off the defending champs is just the first step in the process, not the last. There’s another series after that. And another after that. And another after that. How many “after thats” do you figure the Caps have in them?

Games 1 and 2 were full of surprises, really. Besides the Capitals‘ defensive diligence, there was the otherworldly goaltending of young Braden Holtby, who would still be stuck in Hershey if Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth hadn’t gotten hurt. Earlier in the season, when the club was teetering, I wrote that I wasn’t convinced its best goalie wasn’t playing in the minor leagues — and now you can see why. Holtby bailed out the Caps big time last year when they needed help in the net (10-2-2 record, 1.79 goals-against average, .934 save percentage), and he’s doing it again this year.

Only in hockey would a talent like him be stockpiled in the minors when he’d already shown he could succeed in the NHL. I mean, do you think the Nationals are going to keep Bryce Harper in Triple-A one day longer than they need to? Do you think the Redskins would hold Robert Griffin III back if he’d demonstrated the ability to be their starting quarterback?

Holtby, it’s clear, isn’t the type to blink, even when the lights are brightest. So far he’s stopped 72 of the Bruins' 74 shots and played with the self-assurance of Olie Kolzig in his prime. He just seems to have the makeup for the Big Stage, the necessary obliviousness to his surroundings. TD Garden, as we all know, can get a little Roman Colosseum-y at times, but Braden obviously had no trouble tuning it out.

Something he told me before the series began says much about his mindset: “My mentality always has been to, even if you make the team, don’t play just to wear the jersey. I’m here to accomplish something, and that’s what I’ve been brought up to do ever since I was a kid. You don’t take anything for granted. And even if I play well [in these playoffs], when it comes to next year, I’m not going to take it for granted that I’m on the team. I’m going to work as hard as I can next summer and next year to be even better.”

The Capitals haven’t been waiting quite as long for a top goaltender as the Redskins have for a top quarterback, but sometimes it feels like it. And it can make such a difference for a club. Holtby’s stellar play his given his teammates the confidence they can “win every night,” as defenseman Roman Hamrlik put it. He also makes it easier for them to stay patient — the key to Dale Hunter’s system and a struggle for them in the past — because he isn’t giving up anything cheap.

“There’s not much room out there,” Green said. “It’s clogged up in the neutral zone … and both teams are playing well defensively. So it’s just a matter of being patient and waiting for that opportunity. I mean, even the goal Nick [Backstrom] scored [to win Game 2 in double OT] wasn’t a Grade A scoring chance. It was just one chance that … we got lucky [on].”

Monday night the scene shifts to Verizon Center for the third round of this slugfest. Hope, naturally, will be in the air — especially since the Capitals‘ victory Saturday was their first road win over a team seeded as high as the Bruins (second) in 16 years. Just a reminder, though (not that you need it): As far as the Road to the Stanley Cup is concerned, the Caps have barely left the garage.