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Check, please: Capitals’ defense pays off

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BOSTON — General manager George McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis were all smiles. Taking and giving congratulations in the visiting locker room at TD Garden, there was a palpable sense of relief after the Washington Capitals' 2-1 overtime victory in Game 7.

"We needed to win a series like this," McPhee said. This franchise needed it."

It especially was needed after recent playoff disappointments and a roller-coaster season that included a coaching change, a couple of key injuries and a torrid stretch just to qualify for the postseason. But as much as it said something about the Capitals' core and the organization, beating the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins was a validation of coach Dale Hunter and his style.

From stars Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin on down, it seems everyone has bought into what Hunter is selling about defensive, tight-checking hockey.

"It's one of the most committed groups we've ever had. They'll do anything to win," McPhee said. "They're blocking shots, and they're taking hits and putting the puck in the right places. That's a real committed group. I love the way Dale's coaching them."

As right wing Mike Knuble pointed out earlier this week, some players were "drinking the Kool-Aid" right away and others needed a couple of months. But the evidence was on display in the Bruins series: Semin and Jay Beagle diving in front of slap shots, Ovechkin accepting reduced minutes in close games and everyone concentrating on winning battles and trying to cut down on turnovers.

"By being an ex-player I know what it takes, what the players are going through over there, they get to blocking shots and taking big hits, they're sacrificing," Hunter said. "So for players, I think it's one of those things when you win big games like this it's because they sacrificed and they did [Wednesday night] and through the whole series."

It's a departure from years past, even last season, when former coach Bruce Boudreau tried to tighten things up and play a more trapping game. This is a real 1-3-1 neutral zone trap that forces opponents to think more about where they're putting the puck and takes advantage of mistakes.

In putting together a roster with the likes of forwards Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, McPhee believed the Caps were sacrificing some regular-season points for more playoff success.

"What we were doing before didn't work, so you have to try something different. We didn't know if this would work," Leonsis said. "This system seems to be the right system to play in the playoffs. To have seven one-goal games and four overtime games, this certainly was the best, most competitive series since I've owned the team."

Whether it's an improvement, Leonsis said, will be determined by how successful this team is in the second round. Two opening-round series had Game 7s scheduled Thursday.

This core group has yet to reach the Eastern Conference finals.

But players are confident because Hunter's philosophy gives them a chance most every night.

"I think [this season has] been a little up and down, but I think now in the playoffs I think everybody's made a commitment, is buying into it," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "And we're playing good hockey, I think. That's the way you've got to play to be successful, I think, in the playoffs."

Naturally it also makes the margin of error razor thin, and it puts pressure on rookie goaltender Braden Holtby to be strong, if not spectacular. But as the Caps' success over the past several weeks shows, this team excels in pressure situations.

Because they've been essentially in "must-win" games since late in the regular season, the opponent doesn't matter as much as the Caps staying committed to Hunter's system.

"I think you've got to keep playing the way we've been playing," Backstrom said. "We're playing good defensively, I think, and we're blocking shots. We've got to keep doing that. If everybody's playing the same way like we've been doing, I think we have a good chance to advance."

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