Like Matt Bradley said before Game 7 of the first round series with the New York Rangers, "We've come too far and worked too hard to let [losing a Game 7] happen again." And so what was unthinkable almost a week ago has come to pass.
While the hands of The Legend made complete the storybook comeback, it was Bradley who assisted. The third line combination of Brooks Laich, David Steckel, and Bradley turned the tide in that series, wearing down the sterling, suffocating defense of the Rangers and providing offensive sparks that will be long-remembered.
Every great playoff squad requires a checking line to not only shut down the opponents' snipers but also to, shall we say, tenderize the D-men, and keep the puck in their end of the ice with relentless forechecking and cycling. Too often this season the Caps' third line was more a collection of skaters that didn't quite fit on another line, rather than a cohesive unit. I think it's safe to say that a cohesive unit has finally emerged.
And not a moment too soon, as the Caps next face a Pittsburgh team with the sixth-best G/G during the regular season and two of the top three point scorers during the regular season and through this postseason's first round. Further, these Penguins may not have the same balanced attack as last spring's Flyers, but they do boast six skaters with over 20 goals in the regular campaign, and thirteen with at least ten strikes. (By contrast, the Caps had nine such players in 2008-09.) So having an effective checking line going into Round two that can log serious minutes, and still wreak some timely offensive havoc, is a godsend.
Bradley was one of the first Capital players announced to the red horde on Friday night for Game 5 of the first round matchup. And also the last. As in le première étoile du match. It was a just reward, not only in obvious recognition of the two goals that he scored, but of the more subtle ways in which he helped tilt the ice, and the series, in the Caps' favor for good.
Game 4 of the series (which, incidentally, looked at the time as a must-win) featured a third line of Laich, Steckel, and Eric Fehr, with Bradley serving as fourth line right winger. Laich got his customary 16-17 minutes (and 20 shifts), and Stecks and Brads got 10:15 and 7:36 TOI/G, and 16 and 10 shifts, respectively. Seems like impossibly low numbers today. Fehr, for his part, skated 9:24 and 14 shifts -- with a single SOG, two missed, two blocked, and a minus 2 to show for it.
For Game 5, 21-39-10 took just about 20 shifts together, and during that time not only kept the Rangers off the scoreboard, but buried what little offense they were able to muster. That line also, almost magically, humbled Henrik Lundqvist with a sharp angle shot off Bradley's golden stick. Matching up against the likes of Scott Gomez and Nikolai Zherdev, and later Brandon Dubinsky and, one of the stars for the Rangers in the series, Ryan Callahan, they limited that Ranger quartet to 10 shots in total on Friday. And Simeon Varlamov had no trouble seeing most of them. Tide turned.
Game 6 of the first round again saw the newly-assembled third line skate over 20 shifts together, including a whopping 18:39 TOI for Steckel. And that line again shut the door on the Blueshirts, save for a goal in the dying seconds to make it a 5-3 Caps final score. On the offensive side of things, Bradley made a phenomenal play along the wall to free up the puck to Laich, who dished to Steckel and then onto to Milan Jurcina for the first goal of the game, a blast that silenced the Garden.
Steckel also was a key part of that tic-tac-toe for the ages, finished by Tom Poti, which demoralized NYR and effectively salted away the Game 6 win (even at that relatively early stage of the contest). It was a display almost as breathtaking as Bradley's breakaway backhand strike in the prior contest.
The increased effectiveness on both ends of the ice of the newly-minted third unit, and thus increased ice time for them, of course also served to bring down the TOI of the top gunners -- Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, and Alex Semin -- from ridiculous Game 4 heights down to the 17-to-21 minute range (and the higher end of that range only in Ovechkin's case). With the checkers chipping and churning (and probably chirping a bit as well), and providing a wealth of statement-making offense, the two scoring lines were noticeably fresher and pressing less, looser and more creative.
As a bit of a side note: for those who have long criticized the ice time and number of shifts afforded Eric Fehr, well, something had to give, eh? Perhaps it's a little extreme when a, presumably, power forward gets Donald Brashear-level ice (just 3:25 TOI and a partly seven shifts) in Game 6 against NYR, but why mess with a good thing?
Steckel's line's ice time was scaled back a bit for that first round Game 7, with the return of Captain Chris Clark to run things for the fourth trio. Clark and Fehr each skated about 8 and half minutes on Tuesday night, and 11 and 10 shifts, respectively. That's another fantastic development as the team heads into the next round.
And finally we should point out that, when it mattered most in the brilliant defensive chess match that was Tuesday's tilt, Steckel was dynamite at the dot, winning 11 of 15 draws.
In virtually every aspect of the game, Laich-Steckel-Bradley excelled. And put the team back on the track toward the deep playoff run we all long to see. On to Round two boys.