In any series, the biggest game is automatically the game in which one team can be eliminated - in the grand scheme of must-wins, they don't get much bigger.
Game 5 for the Caps, however, was a close second. As the first of back-to-backs in this series, the winner of this game would likely carry some momentum into a potential series-clinching Game 6 less than twenty-four hours later. A loss for the Caps would mean Boston would have two shots at finishing the series, with the second one coming on home ice.
It was something the Caps had to know going into this one - and they played like it, giving Braden Holtby some offensive support (in a game in which he'd need it) and at times out-Bruining the Bruins. The result? A 4-3 victory and the chance to do what many thought wasn't possible - knock out the reigning champs, and do so in the friendly confines of Verizon Center.
Ten more notes on the game:
- The Caps definitely started this game looking like a team that wasn't interested in going home down 3-2 in the series, controlling the neutral zone play for long stretches in the first and second while generating some good chances early. Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson in particular were all over the Bruins' zone in the first, managing to shake loose their freakishly tall Slovakian shadow for just enough time to create something in front of Tim Thomas, and the Caps held the Bruins to one shot on goal through the first six minutes (which included a shotless power play).
- About that big Slovakian guy... while it makes for good television to hear about Zdeno Chara threatening Jason Chimera at the start of the second period (and equally good television to see Chimera look a little bit terrified on the bench), you had to assume that Chara wasn't going to be dumb enough to actually act on it. Taking him off the ice for five minutes - even at the expense of Chimera's pretty face - would have been a win for the Caps, and the fact that nothing transpired is a pretty good sign that he knew that. Go change that underwear, Jason.
- Knowing as we do the ongoing saga of Alexander Semin in the playoffs, particularly over the past few years, it's nice to see the Other Alex step up and really play some good hockey when the team needs him to. His third goal in as many games gave the Caps their first goal of the day, and it came about - brace yourself - as a result of him basically crashing the net and picking up a rebound. Of course he got a little help from a hobbled Joe Corvo, who had blocked a shot a few moments earlier, as well as a prostrate Greg Zanon (diving doesn't pay, kids) and a down-and-out Tim Thomas... but it was also a product of great patience and poise amid mass chaos.
- Easy to say that no one has done a bigger 180 from the regular season to the playoffs than John Carlson, who went from bad to worse over the course of the season but has been one of the team's best defensemen in this series. He's got snarl, he's defending well, and he's jumping into the play - but smartly. And it was his pass that sent Troy Brouwer into the Bruins' zone late in the third today, putting the Caps on top for good.
- Everyone has been heaping praise on Braden Holtby since the start of the series - and it's certainly been deserved, as he's bailed his teammates out on a number of occasions. Today gave them a chance to repay him a bit, as he made some excellent saves but also let in one, maybe two goals that you'd really like to see him stop. It's to be expected with a young goalie, for sure, and it's nice to see the team step up and get a win for him for once.
- Most of this series has been played at a stalemate, with tied scores being the norm and the smallest of leads taken throughout. It's been so even that until Jay Beagle flipped the puck in off of Thomas' glove with a little over five minutes to go in the second period, no team had held a two-goal lead at any point in this series. If you want a sign of just how tightly this series has been played, look no further than the fact that it took five games for that to happen... while all it takes is for someone to sneeze in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia and the lead's twice that big.
- Didn't take long for even that lead to disintegrate, however, as three minutes later Dennis Seidenberg cut that lead in half. And then twenty-eight seconds after that Brad Marchand decided to wake up for a moment and tied the game up at two. Because having a bit of breathing room is so 2009.
- Onward we'd go with the tie score, extending the heart attack into the third. Just when we thought it was in the bag, with Mike Knuble doing his Knuble-esque work on a rebound to put the Caps up 3-2, Johnny Boychuk's blast from the point five minutes later made it a whole new game once more. For those keeping track at home, by the way, the Caps have lost six one-goal leads in this series so far. And for those keeping track at home, that's not a good thing.
- Weak call on Benoit Pouliot late in the third of a tie game? Perhaps. But the Caps will take a two minute man-advantage for that love tap any day, and especially on this day, as Troy Brouwer turned an odd-man rush on the power play into the eventual game-winner. Must be all that whining the Caps have been doing...
- Nail-biting time would follow, because if we know one thing with this team - with either of these teams, really - it's that no lead is safe and you can't trust the clock to actually run. But the Caps passed their second test in the last two games and as a result earned their second win in the last two games.
And it's back to Washington one more time for a chance to put the Bruins away for good. With a short turnaround, it'll be interesting to see how these teams rebound - the Caps riding momentum and adrenalin, the Bruins desperate and angry. Is the advantage with the battle-proven Bruins, who have been in this situation before, or is it with the Caps with their younger goalie and healthier lineup?
We'll know soon enough.