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DALY: Thin line between victory and defeat for Caps

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

You get the sense every game in this Washington Capitals-Boston Bruins series is going to be like the first three. The pattern has been established – as it so often is in the playoffs. Let's face it, there isn't much that separates these teams, the second and seventh seeds in the Eastern Conference.

Last Thursday the score was 1-0, Bruins, in overtime. Saturday the score was 2-1, Capitals, in double overtime. And Monday at Verizon Center the score was 4-3, Bruins – in regulation, but just barely. The winning goal, on a shot from the point by Zdeno Chara that deflected off Roman Hamrlik, came with a mere 1:56 left. A couple of more shifts, and the clubs would have been in OT again.

"We knew it was going to be a tough series," Brooks Laich said, "and we've been in all three games. We just have to get some rest and go back at 'em Thursday night."

The more rest the better. The postseason is always draining, physically and emotionally, and a tight series like this can be doubly so. The Caps have to be mentally prepared to go the distance, seven games, with the Bruins and anybody else they cross paths with. Otherwise, they can forget about winning the Stanley Cup.

In Game 3, the series got, almost predictably, more rambunctious. There were more penalties, more after-the-whistle chippiness, more crashing of the crease – all part of an effort by the Bruins to discombobulate the Capitals, who had been remarkably disciplined in Boston. You'd have to say it worked, too. The Bruins' second and third goals, by Daniel Paille and Brian Rolston, came on rebounds, the kind of rebounds the Caps hadn't been giving up.

Braden Holtby once again played well enough between the pipes to win, but his teammates didn't give him nearly the support they had been. "Sometimes in your own zone, it's hard to get the puck turned around and go the other way," Troy Brouwer said. Still, he added, "We've gotta help him out and make sure there are no pucks in front of the net. They were really going hard to the net."

One thing the Capitals did a very good job of in this game is responding to Bruins goals. After Paille scored in the first minute of the second period to make it 1-1, it took Alex Ovechkin all of 13 seconds to answer – by flying down the right wing and slipping the puck between Tim Thomas' pads. And when Rolston gave the Bruins their first lead early in the third period, the Caps kept pushing until Laich broke in alone on Thomas and beat him with a nifty backhander.

But the Capitals didn't do the greatest job of dealing with the visitors' roughhouse tactics. Nick Backstrom, in particular, is too important to the Washington cause to be making three trips to the penalty box (cross checking, tripping, cross checking) – and then getting a match penalty after the final horn for hitting Rich Peverley in the chops with his stick.

As it stands now, Backie is suspended for Game 4, though the league will review the matter. Dale Hunter said he expected the suspension to be rescinded – the hit, after all, caused no discernible damage – but that might just be wishful thinking.

"If somebody gets a good lick on you, you've just got to stay composed," Laich said. "They're going to do what they can to get us off our game, and we're going to do the same thing to them." At the same time, it didn't surprise him in the least that the physicality got ramped up Monday night. In some series, he said, "it takes a few games to develop it"

And in the games in Boston, it became clear to the Bruins that the Capitals weren't going to go quietly. Indeed, the two clubs seem almost mirror images of each other at times with their tight-checking, defensively responsible approaches. It's just that the B's have been doing it a bit longer than the previously run-and-gun Caps have. Will that be what ultimately decides this series, or will it come down to fluky goals like Chara's bank shot Monday night?

That remains to be seen, of course. But there's been nothing to suggest this battle between two welll-matched foes is going to be settled quickly. The Bruins reminded everybody they were the defending champs in Game 3, regaining the home-ice advantage with a gritty effort. But the Caps were right there with them, right to the end. This thing isn't over, not by a long shot.

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