When the Caps slid into 7th place on the last day of the regular season, it ensured them of a meeting with the reigning Stanley Cup champs - a first-round series that many "experts", to say nothing of fans on both sides, thought would be fairly one-sided in the Bruins' favor.
That it ended up not only not being one-sided but also one of the closest series in NHL history is a tribute to the entire team, from the net on out. Just about everyone finally seemed to buy in to the defense-first system Dale Hunter had tried to put in place since December, and when one guy couldn’t make it happen another was almost always there to pick up the slack. It wasn’t a perfect series – far from it – but the Caps put together a solid, somewhat surprising effort.
To do so, they needed to get a little extra from guys who don’t usually draw the spotlight, whether it was a fourth-liner ending the series or a rookie goaltender making the big save. So as we look ahead to the next round, a look back at some guys who need to maintain (and a few who might need to pick it up, just a little)...
Those For Whom Play Exceeded Expectations
Braden Holtby - One of the big question marks for the Caps heading into this series was the performance of their 22-year-old rookie goaltender, who was suddenly thrust into the spotlight after injuries felled both Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. And while he was prone to a few bobbles and rookie mistakes – and certainly had plenty of help from the team in front of him - there’s no question that he far exceeded expectations… and as a result outdueled the Vezina trophy winner at the opposite end of the ice. Holtbeast indeed.
Karl Alzner - Was there ever any doubt that Karl Alzner would step up and continue to be the steady, solid playoff performer the Caps needed him to be? Trust us, that doesn’t make it any less pleasant. The Bruins have some skilled forwards on their roster but when Karl was patrolling the blue line, there was no need for concern, and the four goals for which he was on the ice was tied (with his defense partner) for the second-lowest on the team.
Jay Beagle - The playoffs are often a time for unsung heroes to step up and contribute, and Jay Beagle did exactly that against the Bruins. He may have only picked up one goal in the series but every time his line was on the ice there was energy and an excellent forecheck. Between that and his 62.5% effectiveness on faceoffs, it's not hard to see why Beagle's ice time over the last seven games was five minutes more on average than his regular season totals.
John Carlson - It may not have been a shock to see Karl Alzner step up and perform so well, but after the way the regular season went for Carlson it was definitely a pleasant surprise to see him do the same. He was easily one of the team's best defensemen, bringing a little bit of snarl and good positioning along with some smart offensive plays (including the one that kicked off the scoring in Game 7). His two assists trailed only Roman Hamrlik for offense among the blueliners but it was his work in his own end that really made him stand out.
Mike Knuble - He may have been scratched for the first three games, but when a suspension to Nicklas Backstrom opened up a spot in the lineup, Knuble made sure it wouldn't happen again for the remainder of the series. As the final four games went on it was Knuble who was called upon to take on some heavy defensive lifting at even strength - and you only have to see his work on the series-clinching overtime winner last night to know that one doesn't have to get a ton of ice time to make an impact on a game.
Matt Hendricks - Hendricks certainly picked a good time to get his first goal of the series, opening the scoring in last night's final game to give the Caps that all-important one-goal lead. It wasn't his offense that made him a key player in this series, however; it was his feistiness, and his intelligence to know when to keep that in check that did that (note him phyiscally holding back teammate Jason Chimera during a scuffle in front of the benches last night). He was another part of the forechecking trio that, by the end of the series, was outplaying the Bruins' third- and fourth-lines. And in the end, that would make all the difference.
Roman Hamrlik - With all the talk about Carlson and Alzner and Holtby, it's possible to lose sight of just how good Hamrlik was in this series. Alongside Mike Green, he was a quietly steady presence in the defensive zone and, more surprisingly, led all Caps' blueliners in points with three (all assists). That unfortunate deflection into his own net aside, Hamrlik was a calming presence in his own zone all series long and, at 38-years-old, trailed youngsters Carlson and Alzner in blocked shots by just one, with 16 over the seven games. Keep it up, Hamr.
Those For Whom Expectations Exceeded Play
Alex Ovechkin - It's probably a bit unfair to say that Ovechkin didn't live up to expectations, considering he still managed to lead the team in points, without his usual center and while facing off against the defenseman who has given him fits in recent years. And overall, it really wasn't a bad series for the captain (...when he was allowed to play). We put him here because whatever team the Caps face next will not present quite the same challenges to Ovechkin's scoring touch - and he needs to capitalize on that. The series against the Bruins didn't need him to be at his best, but the next one almost surely will.
Keith Aucoin - No knock on Aucoin - he's a solid, energetic player. And he made a few good plays in a series that featured numerous defensemen who towered over him by a good six inches (and often more). But too often against the Bruins he was getting muscled off the puck, making curious decisions and showing that he's probably just more suited to the AHL. That said, if he's going to stick around - and if the coach is going to throw him out on the ice for more than a minute of power play time a game (?!?) - he needs to step it up and prove he belongs there. At least for now.
Dennis Wideman - Oh, Wideman, Wideman, Wideman. The tricky thing with #6 is that there are times where he makes quietly good defensive plays, and there are the moments where he's bailed out his defensive partner and/or his goaltender; there are also many, many more times where he's either beaten on a play or makes a bad decision with the puck that leads to a scoring chance. And when you lead all defensemen on your team with eight goals-against in a fairly low-scoring series, it's not all about rebounds and passes in the skates. Here's hoping the next series features All-Star Wideman and not "Dear god what the hell" Wideman.
Alexander Semin - Overall, Semin was probably one of the better forwards among the Caps' top 6 if you take all things into consideration - goals, defensive responsibility, etc. His three goals led the team (and were tied for the series lead), and the fact that two of the three came on the power play is great. He also made some stunning defensive plays that left even the most verbal "experts" speechless. But the fact is that Semin wasn't able to provide the Caps with consistent secondary scoring at even strength, and with both teams struggling on special teams and every game decided by a goal, his presence may have helped ease a few heart attacks over the course of the series. Expect more going forward.
Nicklas Backstrom - His return to the lineup after missing forty games with a concussion was supposed to solidify the offense from the top six and make them more defensively responsible. Overall it wasn't a horrible series for Backstrom (and he, like Ovechkin, did manage to pick up some points, with a goal and three assists in this series) but it felt like it was lacking something. Granted, he spent the better part of the first three games getting manhandled by the Bruins and sat out Game 4 with a suspension - but he finished out the series with a couple of defensive gaffes leading directly to Boston goals and the actions he took leading to the suspension (whether or not you agree with the punishment) were uncharacteristically selfish and undisciplined. Better Backstrom in the next series? Count on it.
Jeff Schultz - If there was ever a team that was going to eat up a guy like Jeff Schultz, it was the Bruins; so it's not really that surprising that he got the hook for Games 4, 5 and 6 (although it was surprising to see him back in for Game 7). His decision-making skills with the puck are just not good enough against a hard forechecking team like Boston, and it showed. His positioning was pretty good, as it always is, and by the end of the series he was showing a willingness to hit back... but overall it wasn't the most comforting sight to see Double Nickel out there in this one.