DALY: Have the Capitals finally grown up?

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BOSTON — Unlike that scene in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” you don’t get a set of steak knives — or anything else — for finishing second in a Stanley Cup playoff series, no matter how memorable it is. All you get is the hurt that comes with knowing that you fell short, that the other team advanced and you didn’t.

The Washington Capitals have lived with that ache the past few seasons, and Wednesday night they finally did something about it. They went into TD Garden, home of the Boston Bruins, and beat the defending champions in Game 7 — 2-1 in overtime. It was a fabulous end to a historic series, one that featured an unprecedented seven one-goal games, four of which went into overtime, and an utterly amazing performance by Braden Holtby, the Capitals‘ young goaltender.

The bigger question, though, is: Was it the beginning of something, too?

Perhaps. Perhaps the Capitals have matured into the team Ted Leonsis and George McPhee have been envisioning for some time now. There were certainly indications of that against the Bruins. In every game, 1 through 7, the Caps were essentially the same, hustling, committed-to-defense club.

How long has it been since you could say that about them in the playoffs? They’ve been infamous in recent years for changing their personality on almost a nightly basis. But not this time. Instead, they stuck doggedly with the buttoned-down style they developed in the last half of the season, one that revolved around responsibility and physicality.

As general manager George McPhee described it outside the joyous Washington locker room, “You have to be willing to give a hit and take a hit. You have to put the puck in the right place. And you have to block shots. Their consistency was remarkable. You really saw it in the first two games. After that, I thought: We can win this series. We’ve been better in the playoffs than we were in the regular season.”

No one should have been very surprised that the series went the route or that the games were close. There isn’t much that separates these two teams, as they’ve spent the last two weeks demonstrating. What few could have predicted, though, was that the Capitals, who had the worst road record of any playoff team (16-21-4), would play so well in Boston, winning three and losing the other 1-0 in double OT.

As the series wore on, you found yourself wondering: Do the Caps have any stars any more, or have they just become this amorphous, hard-working, monolithic entity? It’s a stunning transformation, you have to admit. Their two goals in Game 7, for instance, came from Matt Hendricks and Joel Ward, who rank pretty far down the scoring list. Ward’s game-winner was set up by net-crashing Mike Knuble, who joined Joel as a healthy scratch in the early part of the series.

“The foot soldiers,” Dale Hunter said. “You win series with them. And tonight, they came through big time.”

To which Hendricks added, “I think we’re just sick of losing at this time of year. We had to figure out what it was going to take to win playoff games.”

What it probably takes as much as anything is what Hunter calls “push-back” — answering every challenge your opponent throws your way. The Capitals followed every Bruins victory with one of their own. In the last 2 ½ games, they followed every Bruinsgoal with one of their own. That’s right, the two clubs alternated the last 14 goals. But the Caps scored the final one, the one that mattered most, when Ward knocked in Knuble’s rebound 2:57 into overtime.

“We definitely felt confident in ourselves in this building,” he said. “We had already won two. We just needed another performance like that.”

How did the Capitals pull it off? By being ready from the opening faceoff, and by skating hard and playing smart for the full 60-plus minutes. They haven’t always been those things in deciding games. In fact, they haven’t usually been those things. But they were Wednesday night.

The first period was crucial, because it was there, you figure, that the Bruins hoped to jump on the Capitals — as they did in Game 6 — and get them thinking about the Ghosts of Game 7s Past. But it was the Caps who struck first, on Matt Hendricks‘ deflection of a John Carlson slapper. When they took that 1-0 lead into the locker room, after killing all but 10 seconds of Jeff Schultz’s tripping penalty at the end of the period, they made it clear to everybody — themselves included, maybe — that they weren’t going to go away.

It was fitting that Hendricks got the Capitals started. In the grit department, he’s the Washington player who most closely resembles Hunter (who in his playing days loved to mix it up). Indeed, one of the reasons Hunter is a Caps legend is that he scored a Game 7 goal in OT against the Philadelphia Flyers in 1988.

And now he’s steered the Capitals through a classic seven-game battle that will be talked about for decades. As happy as the locker room was, though, no one sounded too self-satisfied. The Caps have learned the hard way about that.

“We’re not going to let it soak in too much,” Holtby said. “We have a goal.”

They do, indeed. And much work remains to be done.

“It’s only four [wins],” Hendricks said. “We’ve got 12 more to go.”

If they’re anything like this first stupendous series, the pleasure will be all ours.

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About the Author
Dan Daly

Dan Daly

Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at ddaly@washingtontimes.com.

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