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Capitals bought in, and it paid off

Defense, discipline keyed turnaround

By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / April 27, 2012
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The sting lingers for the Bruins, who were knocked out of the playoffs Wednesday night by the Capitals, 2-1, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Seven one-goal games, four decided in overtime (one in double overtime), tenacious defense, a phenomenal goaltending performance by 22-year-old Braden Holtby, and a new coach - Dale Hunter - who convinced the Capitals to buy into a system that didn’t come naturally to most of them.

So, the seventh-seeded Capitals are deservedly moving on to Round 2. The franchise, despite its talented lineup led by captain Alex Ovechkin, has been an underachiever, but the two-way play displayed throughout the first round has put it in a position to succeed long-term.

“I think there’s a lot more discipline and a lot more dumping the puck in,’’ said Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. “Sacrificing their body and doing all the little things. Faceoffs.’’

Leonsis thought it might be all over in Game 7 when Jason Chimera was whistled for holding at 17:34 of the third period, giving the Bruins a power play.

“I’ll be honest, when we took the penalty with two minutes left, it was, ‘Oh gosh, it would be such a terrible way to end the series on a power play in the last two minutes of the game,’ ’’ said Leonsis.

The Capitals weathered that storm and got to overtime, where Joel Ward potted the winner on a rebound at 2:57 as Washington took advantage of a Bruins line change.

Benoit Pouliot rimmed the puck around in the Capitals end with good velocity but it wound up going right to Mike Knuble and bouncing off his shinpads. Knuble recognized a two-on-one was developing and raced in with Ward. Knuble fired a backhander on Tim Thomas and the Bruins goalie made the stop, but Ward was there for the rebound and just like that, the defending Stanley Cup champion’s season was over.

“Mike Knuble is a pro,’’ said Leonsis. “He really transitioned really well and all I saw was Joel in the back and I couldn’t see the shot but I saw the puck go into the back of their net and it was bedlam in our suite. So, it feels really good.’’

It was especially gratifying for Ward and Knuble, who at times this season had been reduced to spare parts. Ward hadn’t scored since Feb. 24 when he fired a shot into an empty net against the Canadiens and Knuble was a healthy scratch in the first three games of the series.

“It’s a big thrill for Joel, for me,’’ said Knuble, a former Bruin. “It’s always a big thrill for the fourth-line guys because they don’t count on you to be the scorers. It’s a great feeling, it’s very satisfying. It didn’t matter about us . . . it was about moving on.’’

Despite the label of being underachievers, Knuble said he didn’t think the Capitals felt inordinate pressure to knock off the Bruins.

“There are no monkeys on our back here,’’ he said. “This [was] a series we weren’t supposed to win. We were a little bit more of a nuisance to a No. 2 seed, being the No. 7 seed. We were the ones who weren’t supposed to be there. We came and felt good about how we matched up [against the Bruins] and we were that 1 or 2 percent better in the series and got the final bounce. It’s one step for us. There are more steps to go and this is the first big one that you’ve got to have. Defending Stanley Cup champions don’t go out easy and they sure didn’t [in Game 7].’’

Knuble said it was pointless to revisit the roles he and Ward had over the first 82 games, because it’s only about the postseason.

“The regular season is over and whatever we went through in the regular season was the regular season,’’ said Knuble. “I think Joel and I are thankful that we [got] a good chance to play. We played very well with Keith [Aucoin]. I think we have been very responsible. We’ve chipped in and been defensively responsible. We’re not going to play as much as the other guys, but when we get out there I like what we’re trying to do with the puck and we were able to chip in. It’s a big thrill for us.’’

It’s common in the playoffs for the star players to cancel each other out, opening the door for lesser-known players to shine the way John Druce did for the Capitals back in 1990 when Washington and Boston squared off in the Wales Conference championship. Ward was, for one game anyway, this year’s Druce.

“Stars get all the attention and all the focus . . . and then you have guys like us and that’s all depth,’’ said Knuble. “That’s depth in your team and what players can provide at this time of year. Joel and I are two big bodies surrounded by a playmaking center. So we try and grind it out. We’re not going to score every game and we’re not going to generate shots every shift but we can tilt the ice a bit.’’

Sadly for Bruins fans, in Game 7, they certainly did.

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com.

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