Heading into the Caps/Bruins series, the smart money was on Boston to advance. Every single ESPN.com expert had the defending champs beating the Caps, as did the overwhelming majority of the hockey media elsewhere.
Frankly, that was the smart pick at the time. The Capitals barely qualified for the playoffs, having struggled throughout the season. The Bruins seemed like a well-oiled machine in comparison, merely tuning up for another long Stanley Cup run. So, what changed?
The Re-emergence of John Carlson and Karl Alzner as a shutdown defensive pair.
The Bruins top-six forwards, while they had their moments, struggled mightily to get on the score sheet. A large part of that was the play of Karl Alzner and John Carlson on the Caps’ top defensive pair. The two seemed on their way to legitimate shutdown-pair status last season, but Carlson’s play dipped this season, particularly when Hunter employed a new man-to-man defensive system.
For whatever reason, Carlson completely turned his play around beginning with game one while Alzner continued to play as he has all year. The end result? While drawing the toughest assignments of any Caps’ D, the pair was on ice for just three even strength goals against all series.
They also served as the top penalty killing unit and were consistently given defensive zone starts (only 37% of draws they were on ice for were in the offensive end).
Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom were not only healthy, but key contributors.
While the Caps’ regular season struggles under Hunter were well documented, much of it was played without two of their four best players in Backstrom and Green. Backstrom, sidelined with a concussion from January through early April, is perhaps the team’s most valuable player. The team simply has no bona-fide center to play the top two lines other than him.
His presence completely changed the look of the team, allowing the second line to maintain puck possession in Boston’s end as opposed to playing defense the entire time. Need evidence of his value to the Caps? See game four of the series, when he was suspended. The Bruins badly outshot the Caps by a staggering count of 45-21 and relied on Braden Holtby and a ridiculous power play goal by Alex Semin to steal a win.
As soon as he returned for game five, the puck possession battle was far more even between the two teams, as the shot totals indicate in games 5-7.
Mike Green battled through injuries throughout the entire regular season and didn’t look like himself following abdominal surgery that kept him out of the lineup until the last couple of months. While the Capitals could still more offense from him, Green’s defensive work was outstanding against the Bruins. When he and Roman Hamrlik were on ice 5-on-5, the Bruins didn’t score once.
The Capitals decided to collectively commit themselves to Dale Hunter’s system for more than two periods at a time.
The regular season Caps under Hunter were prone to mental mistakes and miscues, particularly in their own zone. In the man-to-man system this coaching staff employs, one breakdown can cause the rest of the team to scramble around to cover for the blown assignment. This happened often during the regular season, whether as a result of the forwards failing to backcheck or the defensemen losing track of who they were supposed to cover.
Against the Bruins, they seemed to be in the right position 95% of the time in their own end. The defensemen, particularly the top two pairs, were seamless in their coverage and all three forwards were supporting them to help not only in coverage and shot blocking but in aiding a clean breakout.
Surprised? Don’t worry, we here in Washington all were (and still are), especially given the team’s propensity for mental gaffes since the “Young Guns” era began. The next round will provide yet another test to determine whether or not they have finally turned the corner.