No loss in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is completely forgivable, but it would have been understandable if the Washington Capitals had gone 3 games to 1 down to the Boston Bruins Thursday night, it seemed, so long as they took a pound of flesh with them. After the rough play from both sides in Game 3 culminated in the one-game suspension of Nicklas Backstrom, news came through Thursday morning that Dale Hunter would replace Jeff Schultz with John Erskine --never hesitant to throw hands if necessary -- in Washington's defense, and everyone assumed that more mayhem was to come.
Instead, the Capitals got the best possible revenge, beating Boston 2-1 to reduce the series to a best-of-3 and doing it Dale Hunter's way. Washington was physical, they were better in the face-off circle, they took advantage of enough of their opportunities when they came, and they defended with a tenacity rarely seen outside of Italian soccer.
In fact, followers of both sports might easily see the rough parallels between the two systems. Catenaccio, the catch-all phrase used to describe this tactial system, is often an easy target of criticism for those who find it boring or regressive. Similarly, Hunter's system has come under attack at various points during this season for being too quick to concede the attacking initiative to the Caps' opponents.
When the system is poorly executed, the above charges cannot be denied. But when done properly, as on Thursday night at Verizon Center, it showcases all those traits needed to win championships; namely possession, physicality, opportunism, and counter-attacking play.
What is also true with both systems is this: it helps if you have a good goalie, and Braden Holtby was just that in making 44 saves Thursday night.
"I can usually tell when there are screens and I can follow the puck the whole way," Holtby said. "I think that's usually when I can tell that I am seeing the puck well. I felt pretty good tonight, but there were still some lucky times."
Lucky times, like Marcus Johansson diving to break up a potential shot on a 2-on-1 in the second period. Like holding the Bruins to one goal despite his team being outshot by a combined 27-6 in the first and third periods. Lucky times like those.
"My type of fun is intensity, is big games, big moments," Holtby said. "I might not show it on my face, but that's the way I've always been. I've always had the most fun when I'm battling and competing."
In their own locker room, the Bruins bemoaned that they hadn't made life difficult for Holtby the way they had in Game 3.
"He saw everything tonight, that's for sure," said Rich Peverley, who scored Boston's goal of the game on a five-hole wrist shot that Holtby will surely tell you he should have had. "I can't say there were too many shots that he didn't see. He likes to glove the puck, he likes to hold on to it, so we've got to get more bodies in front of him."
The truth of the matter is that Boston's offense, for all the praise deservedly heaped on it in the regular season, is not precise enough at the moment to beat Holtby any other way. The top line of David Krejci, Tyler Seguin, and Brad Marchand struggled again Thursday, while Boston's so-called power play, which would be better described as a two-minute search for the perfect slap shot from distance, dropped to 0-for-12 for the series. Boston is a good enough team to have one of those problems go unsolved in this series. They are not good enough (no team is, really) to have both issues linger for the rest of this series, which seems that it will require the full seven games.
When an opponent has the majority of the shots and the territory, as Boston did Wednesday night, the key to beating them is to obstruct their offense as much possible, retain possession as often as possible and to break out whenever the opportunity presents itself. Washington took care of the first requirement by blocking 26 Boston shots and outhitting the Bruins 44-34, and they dealt with the second requirement by winning 44 of the 76 face-offs taken Thursday (58 percent) after struggling at the dot in the second and third period of Game 3.
"It's very important [to win face-offs]" said Brooks Laich. "And I've spoken to my wingers [in the case of Thursday night, Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson] about coming in and trying to win more of those contested pucks, because I still think that we can be better."
The third requirement was taken care of by the Bruins themselves. A bad pinch by Andrew Ference and a neutral zone turnover by Zdeno Chara led to the 2-on-1 that put Washington up, 1-0. An offensive-zone hooking penalty by Patrice Bergeron led to the power-play on which Alexander Semin scored his game-winner. And when you have Braden Holtby seeing the puck that well, and when you have each player taking the body, blocking shots, winning face-offs, and clearing out the front of the net, you can play Alex Ovechkin as much or as little as you like, because you still have a good chance of winning.
Is it pretty? Not to everyone, but at the moment, Dale Hunter will surely think it's bellissimo.