It's no secret that one of the Boston Bruins' favorite strategies is to play the pest - to get under their opponent's skin, make them retaliate and then make them pay. Thanks to a cast of characters perfectly suited for the role, from the goaltender on out, it was a big part of their run to the Stanley Cup last spring and has been a key component of the first three games of this series. Up until Game 3, however, it was a game plan that had been largely unsuccessful against the Caps; guys were straddling that line between sending a message and engaging in full-on retaliation, playing physical without taking unnecessary penalties.
It was that discipline, that awareness of what the Bruins would try to do and a determination not to play into their hands, which was somewhat missing in the Caps' loss last night. As Boston upped the pest factor, the Caps allowed themselves to be sucked in and proceeded to parade to the penalty box eight times - three of which came at the same time as a Bruins' penalty, with two goals (including the eventual game-winner) coming on the ensuing 4-on-4s.
Nicklas Backstrom in particular has been a target of the Bruins' physicality, receiving multiple (uncalled) shots to the head from various Boston players in the first game, and it was clear that it bubbled over tonight. The usually disciplined Swede found himself in the penalty box three times for various infractions, and then capped it off with a game-ending match penalty for a crosscheck to the head of Rich Peverley - a move that could cost him a spot in Thursday's pivotal Game 4.
To some extent the frustration and the accompanying retaliation is understandable; everyone has a breaking point, and perhaps last night was just that collective point for the Caps. And it certainly doesn't help when the officials play into the Bruins' hands, giving Boston the benefit of the doubt on several plays - including one that sent Brooks Laich to the box for what I can only assume was the audacity to fall down, assisted by After-the-Whistle All-Star Milan Lucic .
But poor officiating didn't lose that game for the Caps (although it certainly didn't help much...nor did the fact that the Caps apparently can no longer play well 4-on-4), and while frustration is understandable it still needs to be tempered and kept in check. The Caps knew coming into this series that this was the game Boston played - and after two disciplined games, they let themselves unravel just enough to give the Bruins the upperhand.
The Caps are still in this series; down 2-1 is hardly a death knell, and there's no reason why they can't even it up on Thursday. They've played a very tight, even three games against a tough opponent and for the most part have looked good doing so. But if they do lose in the end, it should be because they simply had no answer for Boston's offensive depth, because Braden Holtby couldn't match Tim Thomas save for save, because their special teams just weren't good enough or because Boston got that one lucky bounce that the Caps couldn't get. Those are all legitimate reasons, and ones that would neither be unexpected nor shameful if they happened.
What would be cause for disappointment is if the Caps let this series slip away because they allowed Boston to dictate the terms of how the remaining two, three, four games should be played, if they get drawn into taking bad penalties and allow frustration to override determination and discipline. If those things happen and they lose, it will overshadow the fact that they've kept up with the defending champs and make all of us wonder "what if" once again.
As we noted before the series, "they need to find a balance between standing up for themselves and staying disciplined when faced with the Bruins' physicality (legal and otherwise)." If the Caps play their game the rest of the way and not Boston's, they've got a shot - because the high road is the only one that leads to the second round.