April 19, 2012;Washington, DC, USA; Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) is congratulated by teammates Matt Hendricks (26) and Brooks Laich (21) after beating the Boston Bruins 2-1 in game four of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE
This is what we were sold, isn't it?
When the Capitals relieved Bruce Boudreau of his duties back in November and replaced him with Dale Hunter, we were essentially promised a tighter, more "playoff-ready" style of hockey than what had been played in Washington recently. Through four games of the Caps' first-round series against the Bruins, that's pretty much exactly what we've seen, as neither team has yet to play with a two-goal lead; the games have been coin-flips, with "heads" coming up twice.
Granted, things are where they are thanks largely to the efforts of Braden Holtby in the Caps' net, as Boston has had a significant territorial advantage (which is somewhat to be expected, given that the Caps have played with the lead more and that they were missing their top pivot for a game). But the boys in red, white and blue are doing the little things - think Matt Hendricks negating a late icing in Game 4, or Jay Beagle's critical blocked shot with seven seconds left - neccesary to keep up with the higher-seeded, deeper Bruins. And when Boston was held without a single shot on goal over the game's last 7:13 as Washington clung to a one-goal lead, it was the third- and fourth-liners in red who got the job done. Four blocks, six hits... no shots reaching Holtby. A lot of derogatory comments have been made about the Caps' taking on their coach's persona early in the series, but never has that observation been as apt and complimentary as applying it to the waning moments of Game 4. Hard work. Effort. Blue-collar.
And what does the captain think of his reduced ice time down the stretch? "It doesn’t matter if I’m going to play 10 seconds or 5 seconds, most important thing is team result." Hello, buy-in.
It hasn't been perfect - the Caps have taken four leads in the series from which they've allowed the Bruins to come back. But last night's third period - at home, with a one-goal lead - was a test, and Hunter's boys passed, moving the team to 27-0-1 since the start of the season when leading after two periods (though there have been some blown leads in there, including in Game 2). They had the lead and held the lead, bent but never broke. Simple as that.
The reality is that, four games in, with a bounce here or there, the Caps could already be in the second round... or on the golf course. One can argue the wisdom of playing these "50/50" games given the make-up of the Caps' roster. But it's increasingly difficult to argue that the team hasn't gotten good at playing 'em. And what does it mean for what has become a best-of-three series? Take a coin out of your pocket and flip it three times. How many times did heads come up?