New-look Capitals use defense to get to 2nd round
By HOWARD FENDRICH
WASHINGTON (AP) This hardly is the way Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals were expected to succeed when this roster was being put together.
Doesn't matter one bit, of course.
After year upon year of underachieving in the postseason, the seventh-seeded Capitals finally are overachievers: They're headed to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs after getting past the Boston Bruins in overtime of Game 7, the first time in franchise history Washington eliminated the reigning Stanley Cup champion.
It's also the first time Washington won a Game 7 on the road. Indeed, they'd only been 2-7 in such winners-take-all contests anywhere.
"That wasn't pretty," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said afterward. "That was beautiful."
What's changed is that Washington no longer relies on Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and its other playmakers up front to carry them. Adopting new coach Dale Hunter's defense-first strategy, and with team captain Ovechkin spending plenty of time on the bench, the Capitals are winning ugly.
"I think winning any way you can is what playoff hockey is about," Leonsis said.
Sure took a while for that lesson to sink in.
Under previous coach Bruce Boudreau and his wide-open system, and with Ovechkin scoring seemingly at will en route to a pair of NHL MVP awards, the Capitals dominated during the regular season, then went home earlier than expected once the playoffs got going.
Four consecutive Southeast Division titles were nice, certainly, and so was that Presidents' Trophy awarded for having the most points in the standings.
But losing in the first or second round of the postseason to lower-seeded teams was not what Leonsis or Washington's fans were hoping for.
"There's been some frustration here in the past," forward Brooks Laich said.
This season, Boudreau was fired in late November and replaced by Hunter, who never was so much as an assistant coach in the AHL, let alone a head coach in the NHL. But as a player, Hunter did end two series with winning goals, so he knows what it takes in the pressure cooker of the postseason.
Even though the Capitals only squeezed into the playoffs by securing a berth in the final week of the season, they might have been more prepared than ever to succeed. They know they need to do all the little things right. They know they need to worry at least as much - if not more - about protecting their net than putting the puck in the opponent's.
"I mean, that's the way you've got to play to be successful, I think, in the playoffs," Backstrom said. "Playing good defensively and blocking shots - and we've got to keep doing that."
They managed to come out on top against the No. 2-seeded Bruins in the first NHL playoff series to feature seven one-goal games. Four went to overtime; two others were decided with less than two minutes left in the third period.
"This is a series here that we weren't supposed to win," Capitals forward Mike Knuble said. "It's one step for us. We got more steps to go."
Washington did it with tremendous goalkeeping by Braden Holtby, a playoff rookie who had played in a grand total of 21 NHL games heading into the series. With shot-blocking and conservative play. And with Ovechkin sitting out for long stretches. He played a career playoff-low 15 minutes, 34 seconds in Game 5, then was on the ice for only 16:25 in Game 7.
The winning goal came from Joel Ward, who scored only six all season but was there to put in a backhand after Knuble's shot was blocked.
"When it comes playoff time, you never know who's going to score goals," Hunter said.
He also made a point of remarking on how vital contributions can be from lesser-known players, guys who might be given less-than-glamorous duty.
"The sacrifices they make - to block shots and do what the coaches tell them to do - it's no fun," Hunter said. "But it's fun when you win."
AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen in Boston contributed to this report.
Howard Fendrich can be reached at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
Updated April 26, 2012