- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

So now we have a three-game series between the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins. What’s not to like? For over a week these two teams have been exchanging goals, blows, dirty looks – everything but phone numbers – and they’re all tied up, 2-2. Does anybody really want to see it end any sooner than it has to?

The Bruins, with their history, are used to these classic, physical, grind-it-out matchups in the postseason. But how many have the Capitals had over the decades – especially against an Original Six club that also happens to be the defending Stanley Cup champ? No, with the Caps’ 2-1 victory Thursday night at raucous Verizon Center, accomplished without suspended star Nicklas “The Hammer” Backstrom, this series moved fairly high in the Washington franchise pantheon. The only question now is: How much further is it going to go? I mean, imagine if this wasn’t “just” the first round.

They’ve played four games now, these two teams – and three overtimes on top of that – and neither has enjoyed more than a one-goal lead. How rare is that in the playoffs? In the first two meetings in Boston, the score was Bruins 2, Capitals 2. In the first two meetings in D.C., the score was Bruins 5, Capitals 5. In overtime, the score is Bruins 1, Capitals 1. Could this series be any closer?

“We didn’t expect it to be a shootout,” Brooks Laich said. “But we feel comfortable in tight games. And when you get goaltending like we’ve gotten, it makes it easier, too.”

Boston Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg (44) (third from right) and Bruins goalie Tim Thomas (30) (second from right) try to block Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) (second from left) in front of the goal in the second period as the Caps took on the Bruins iin game four of the National Hockey League's first-round playoffs at the Verizon Center in Washington on Thursday, April 19, 2012. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
Boston Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg (44) (third from right) and Bruins goalie ... more >

Let’s face it, the Capitals haven’t always been at ease in these situations in recent years. Last season, in fact, they were swept by Tampa Bay in a series much like the current one – four close, low-scoring games that basically came down to: Who wants it more? Then, too, Michal Neuvirth wasn’t quite as impenetrable against the Lightning as Braden Holtby has been against the Bruins.

“He’s so easy to play with,” John Erskine said of the 22-year old Goalie from Another Planet, who made 44 saves in Game 4. “He comes out and plays the puck and makes the defenseman’s job so much easier.”

In the early part of the game, the Bruins seemed determined to expedite things, to deliver the crushing blow that would enable them to finish off the Capitals on Saturday back in Boston. Up and down the ice they whisked, outshooting the home club 14-3 in the first period and creating an uncomfortable – from a Washington standpoint – number of scoring opportunities. Time and again, though, they were frustrated by Holtby, and when the storm had passed, the scoreboard read 1-1 (after goals by Marcus Johansson and the B’s pesky Rich Peverley). At that stage, even with Backstrom in street clothes, you had to like the Caps’ chances.

And sure enough, they pulled ahead with 1:17 left in the second period on a power-play blast from the left circle by Alexander Semin that Tim Thomas is probably still looking for. That, as it turned out, was all Holtby needed. With both clubs on their best behavior after Monday’s chippy affair, the Capitals‘ goalie had to deal with only one power play the entire evening (midway through the third period, when Mike Knuble was caught holding).

“I had a feeling it was going to settle down tonight,” Karl Alzner said. “I’m sure the coach over there – and ours, too – was saying, ‘Stay smart. Play between the whistles. Try to win a hockey game.’” (Especially with the officials likely keeping a closer eye on the extracurricular stuff.) Erskine, a healthy scratch for most of the past two months, returned to the ice to lend Washington some muscle, some growl, but it didn’t end up being that kind of game, really. Instead, the teams decided to play hockey (and very entertaining hockey at that).

In Boston, of course, the Capitals and Bruins could very well go back to the tit-for-tat tactics that predominated in Game 3. There’s just no telling. But Holtby, it’s clear, is prepared for any eventuality; indeed, he’s relishing his time in the spotlight. The kid looks so certain of himself, you’d think he was playing with his neighborhood buddies on a frozen pond, not against the defending league champions on hockey’s biggest stage.

“It’s so fun – the close games, the close battles,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t change.”

We should all hope it doesn’t change. A series like this doesn’t come along every day – or every decade, for that matter. And when one does, well, it’s something to be savored.