- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2012

BOSTON — This wasn’t a historically close series by accident. The Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins like playing on the edge, making it the first time in Stanley Cup playoffs history that all seven games were decided by one goal.

Dale Hunter hockey is tight hockey, so that’s exactly what everyone expected going into Wednesday’s Game 7 at TD Garden.

“It’s who’s going to get that break at the end. It’s a big mystery,” veteran forward Mike Knuble said Tuesday. “It’s almost more mysterious than anything. It’s like, who is going to get that break? Who is going to the final bounce?”

It was only fitting that one final break decided this first-round series, and the Caps were on the right side of it in a 2-1 overtime victory that propelled them into the Eastern Conference semifinals and knocked out the defending Stanley Cup champions.

“You’re excited you’re moving on,” Brooks Laich said. “It’s our dream to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs and play for the Cup. There’s been some frustration here in the past. To move on, to beat a good team and to move on, we’re very excited.”

Joel Ward scored the game-winner off a rebound 2:57 into the extra session to set off a celebration amid a stunned Boston crowd. It was his first goal with a goalie in the net since Jan. 7 and came as a result of a hard-working play with he and Mike Knuble going to the net.

“It happened so fast. But I knew that he was going to take the puck to the net. I wasn’t really looking for a pass across,” Ward said. “I was just trying to follow up just in case there was a puck loose or a rebound. I just kind of saw it there and just gave it one of the hardest whacks I’ve ever given a puck.”

Eliminating the Bruins was a testament to Hunter’s style of hockey. It helped that the Caps were playing close games essentially for survival for the past two months, but refining it was the key.

“We were playing playoff games the last couple months of the regular season,” general manager George McPhee said. “And when we did what Dale asked, it worked. We won games. It worked in the first round here.”

Buying in got the Caps into the second round and a matchup with either the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers or New Jersey Devils. Their opponent won’t be determined until Thursday night, though the series will start on the road, likely Saturday or Sunday.

Smart, simple road hockey and a commitment to tight-checking defense is what got the Caps the victory in Game 7. Some of it was Braden Holtby (31 saves) finishing what he started to pick up his first series victory in the NHL, but again Washington did an excellent job of frustrating the Bruins all over the ice.

The Caps took the lead and the air out of TD Garden with Matt Hendricks’ tip-in goal 11:23 in. Bruins goalie Tim Thomas had shutouts in his past two Game 7 performances but had no chance of stopping John Carlson’s point shot that Hendricks redirected past him.

Yet again in this series, it wasn’t Alex Ovechkin (16:25 on ice) who performed the magic, but rather the bottom-six forwards.

“You need the foot soldiers. Tonight, through the whole series, it [helps] you big time,” Hunter said. “It’s a battle. You go out there and the sacrifices they make and the blocked shots, what coaches tell them to do. It’s no fun, but it’s fun when you win.”

With the crowd taken out of the game, Holtby brought it back by allowing a soft goal late in the second. There were plenty of mistakes all around him on the play, though, from Nicklas Backstrom losing a battle along the boards to Karl Alzner getting outmuscled in front by Tyler Seguin, who tapped the loose puck in from the crease.

But the Caps got the final break, proving doubters wrong.

“It feels unbelievable,” Alzner said. “We’re all extremely happy about it and very relieved that all the hard work and just us fighting against what everybody’s been saying about us, we came out on top.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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