WASHINGTON – The Capitals are for real.
As the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series shifts to the nation’s capital tied at one game apiece, it’s clear that the Bruins’ competition is stiff. The Capitals have handcuffed Boston’s offense, played two great road games and made two fanbases forget that they’re doing it with an AHL goalie.
The prediction in this space prior to the series was that the Bruins would take it in five, and that the series was more likely to go four games than six. As Michael Scott once said, “It takes a big man to admit his mistake, and I am that big man.” The Bruins still look like the better team through two games, but they have been anemic while Washington has been sharp. This series will be a lot tighter than most predicted, but the Bruins won't have any excuses if they lose it.
Here are three reasons they should be concerned with the series and three reasons why they shouldn’t worry. We’ll start with the former.
The Capitals are doing what Dale Hunter wants them to do. When Hunter took over for Bruce Boudreau in November, it was a sign that the Capitals wanted to move away from the flashy-yet-risky style that had got them lots of goals but little playoff success in recent seasons.
The expectation was that it would have taken some before the Capitals would start buying in. Nope.
The Capitals are limiting the Bruins all over the ice. Their 1-4 trap keeps them from getting any odd-man rushes through the neutral zone, and when the Bruins do get into the Washington zone they are met by willing shot-blockers. Washington blocked 22 shots in Game 1 and 26 in Game 2.
Washington’s been good defensively, and the Bruins need to adjust. So far they haven’t, and their forwards are probably left feeling the same way teams do when they face Boston.
Braden Holtby is getting comfortable. As has been written here before (and will be written again in this very piece), this whole Holtby thing has been overblown. He hasn’t really been tested, so he’s put up big numbers and made it look on paper like he’s dominated the series. Still, you can’t deny that two games’ worth of low-scoring hockey and matching Tim Thomas save for save should give any goaltender a confidence boost.
One of the biggest keys to this series was for the Bruins to get to Holtby and get to him early. He’s an untested kid – and a third-string goalie who knows his team would never have him in that spot if it weren’t for some bad luck with injuries – so pressuring him in the defending champs’ building could have broken his confidence and put the Capitals in a really bad situation.
Instead, Holtby was able to shutout the Bruins in regulation before giving up the game-winner in Game 1 and allowing just a Benoit Pouliot goal (on a pretty bad play by the goaltender) in Game 2. Whether or not he’s had to work very hard for it, Holtby’s got to feel good about his game right now. Who saw that coming?
Offensively, the Bruins’ big names have been big duds.
As no one has ever said, “Benoit Pouliot can’t do everything.”
The Bruins’ lack of scoring is in large part due to the stingy nature of Washington’s play, but it also falls on Boston’s forwards – especially the big names.
We’ll throw shots on goal out of the discussion for fairness’ sake, as the shots – as noted above – have often been pucks thrown at the net rather than legitimate scoring chances. Instead, we’ll stick to zero – as in goals by the top two lines through two games – as the primary star to work around.
They need a better net-front presence – er, they need a net-front presence. Milan Lucic needs to step his game up big-time, and being physical in front of Holtby and wreaking a little havoc would be the biggest way he could do that. Remember, he got a bit of a pass for his poor sub-Lucic showing last postseason (12 points in 25 games) because he wasn’t healthy (sinus infection and, later, a broken toe), but that excuse isn’t there now. Lucic fanned on what would have likely been the game-winning goal in regulation in Game 1 when he fanned on a pass from behind the net with Holtby out of position.
As was pointed out before the playoffs, the Bruins need someone to replace what Nathan Horton brought this team in last year’s playoffs. Lucic has the skill-set and should have the motivation to improve on last year. He just hasn’t done it, and he isn’t alone.
For the second straight year, David Krejci has been awfully quiet in the first round of the playoffs (only one of his NHL-best 23 points came in the seven-game series against the Canadiens last April). His line still came through when it needed to early last postseason because of Horton, but that obviously won’t be the case this time around. Krejci, Lucic and Rich Peverley need to start looking more like a top line.
You can never really point the finger at Patrice Bergeron’s line because of who plays on it in Bergeron – this season’s Selke favorite – and the also defensively sound Brad Marchand. The line has been a big reason as to why Alexander Ovechkin’s been held in check, but it still needs to produce some offense. Tyler Seguin’s unwillingness to battle for pucks has been worse than usual, and that’s a problem. These top two lines need to get going.
Of course, the series is still tied, and the Bruins are guaranteed at least one more game on home ice. Here three reasons why they shouldn’t been worried:
The offense can still get to Holtby. The box scores (73 saves) and the fact that he’s allowed only one regulation goal through two games have been pretty deceiving when it comes to the Capitals’ rookie goaltender. The Bruins have not managed to get quality looks against Holtby. He’s seeing everything that’s coming his way, and he hasn’t had to make an abundance of saves that anyone would consider beyond routine.
That means that the jury is still out on how well Holtby can and will play in this series. If the Bruins can’t figure out how to break through Washington’s defense, Holtby will continue to put up big numbers and a shiny save percentage with relative ease. If the B’s can actually challenge him, maybe they’ll look Holtby look like a 22-year-old who spent the season putting up modest numbers in the AHL.
The Bruins have limited Alexander Ovechkin. As was pointed out by the Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger during Game 2, Ovechkin has never gone two straight playoff games without a point. That continued in the second period Saturday when Ovechkin got the primary helper on Troy Brouwer’s goal.
Yet that’s been it as far as points go for Ovechkin this series. (Before you think it, we’ll say it for you: Duh, a guy probably isn’t going to have a lot of points when his team has two goals in the series, but keeping Ovechkin quiet is a key to keeping the Capitals quiet).
As expected, Ovechkin wasn’t able to spend much time on the ice without Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg in the first two games. As a matter of fact, the goal that his line scored didn’t come against the Chara-Seidenberg pair. It came as the Bruins were ion the midst of changing their defenseman, so Johnny Boychuk and Greg Zanon were out for the tally.
When Ovechkin has been out against Chara and Seidenberg, they’ve kept enough of an eye – and in Seidenberg’s case, a body – on him for the former 65-goal scorer to have little space to do his thing. They’ve also seemed to get him off his game a bit. Each time Seidenberg hit Ovechkin in Game 1, the Washington captain seemed to spend the rest of that shift trying to line the Bruins’ blueliner up. In Game 2, he cross-checked Seidenberg in the head, which earned him a big “you’re lucky you’re a superstar” from the refs and the league.
Ovechkin had three shots on goal Saturday, which is an improvement on the one he had in Game 1, but it’s still below what he averages (right around four per game in the regular season, which was a career low).
With the series moving to Washington for the next two games, the Bruins will have to work a little harder to keep that 33-44 pairing on Ovechkin. Dale Hunter will likely use the last change to keep that line away from Chara and Seidenberg.
The B’s still have edge in depth. Washington’s two goals this series have come for its top two lines. The Ovechkin line produced Brouwer’s goal, while the line centered by Nicklas Backstrom got a goal from its namesake in double-overtime.
The Bruins’ top two lines have done zilch offensively, but both of Boston’s goal have come from the third line. The Benoit Pouliot-Chris Kelly-Brian Rolston trio is the line that figured to create matchup problems in the postseason, and so far it’s been as advertised. Of course, it’s been the only line producing for the Bruins, so the Kelly line’s achievements also highlight a bigger problem for the team.
Pouliot had only two points (both assists) in his first 22 career playoff games, but he’s matched that total with a goal and an assist in his first two games as a Bruin. He drew a penalty in the first period of Game 2 with some fancy work in going through Mike Green and was both aggressive and smart on the play that created his third-period goal. Remember, Pouliot was a non-factor in the first two games against the Bruins in the first round last postseason, and he was benched in the Game 3 before being scratched the rest of the series. This year’s been a different story.
The reason this series is tied, and why both games have been so close, is because the Bruins haven’t played well offensively and the Capitals have been much better than anyone expected. There’s still more reason for optimism than pessimism for the B’s, as they still have the deeper offense, the better defense and the better goalie. They just need to put it all together before a close series gets even tougher.