A hockey coach by the name of Bowman once told me -- and I'm paraphrasing here: "The best games of a playoff series almost always come at the very beginning and very end. The middle games, both teams get a little tired, take a little bit of a breather, especially the team up in the series."
Those words of wisdom from William Scott "Scotty" Bowman came to mind immediately after watching Game 4 between Boston and Washington on Thursday night. Make no mistake, the better team -- Washington -- won this one, 2-1, to even the series 2-2. The Capitals played a fine defensive game in front of rookie goalie Braden Holtby, rarely calling on him to make anything more than the saves a goalie should make.
The shot that won the game -- a wicked wristah by Alexander Semin -- was as good a snipe as you'll ever see on a frozen pond. But it was kind of obvious the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins took a bit of a breather in Game 4. And, really, it was predictable in coming.
Wait a minute, Dater, you knucklehead, the Bruins outshot the Caps 45-21. How do you get off saying they took the night off? Can't you read a stat sheet? Holtby stood on his head and stole one, period, end of story.
But this was the kind of contest where the shot totals told nothing, really, about the game. The Capitals were the better, hungrier-looking team when it mattered -- when the game was tied, either at 0-0 or 1-1.
In other words, when it was really, truly a game. Boston would pile up a bunch of shots after Semin's tiebreaking goal, but it was the hockey equivalent of Pete Maravich posting 38 points in a 1976 New Orleans Jazz 126-106 loss or something. It was mostly just window dressing on a house that had no real foundation.
Bruins coach Claude Julien sort of saw it like that too: "I think you've got to give (Holtby) credit. He played well tonight," he told Boston's NESN network.
"But at the same time, you also have to look in the mirror and tell yourself what didn't we do? It's the same old story. I think we did a lot of good things tonight, had a lot of chances and a lot of shots, but until we are ready to pay a real price in front of the net and win those battles and stay there."
Here's the good news for Bruins fans: this was a night their team brought more of its "eh" game than its "A" game, and this thing still came within an inch of going to OT. Johnny Boychuk got off a great shot right before the horn expired, but only a slick glove save by Holtby stopped it from going in and tying it 2-2.
OK, so it actually wouldn't have counted because of a clock malfunction of 5.3 seconds that would have wiped it out, per NHL senior VP of hockey operations Mike Murphy, who released a statement after the game saying any goals in those final 5.3 ticks wouldn't have counted (the final 9.5 seconds actually took 14.8 in real time, just not on the scoreboard). But, the point is, the B's were right there at the end, clock problems be darned.
But forget the shot totals. Take a look at the hits -- 44-34 for the Caps.
In Game 3, Boston outhit Washington 58-36. There is your big difference. The Bruins play better when they're physical, a little angry, a little desperate.
In this one, they looked like a team that thought "You know what? We want this game, let's try and get it, but if we don't, we've still got two out of three in our barn if we need it."
Washington was harder on the puck. They won more battles in the corners and in front of the net. Right when Marcus Johansson scored on the Caps' first shot of the night -- at 1:22 of the first -- you could just tell Washington wanted this one more.
The Bruins' Rich Peverley would tie the score at 13:12, on a short-side, odd-man rush shot in which Holtby failed to lock down the near post. But, while the Bruins put 18 shots on net in the second, they were annoyingly soft on the puck and took two penalties -- the second of which, to Patrice Bergeron for an uncharacteristic, reaching hook of Brooks Laich in front of the Boston net, Semin made them pay.
It was a gorgeous shot by Semin, from the left circle to the far post, top corner, past Tim Thomas. It was precisely the kind of skill that no doubt will contribute to some team, if not the Caps themselves, throwing a pile of money at him when he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1. All kinds of red flags will hoist when Semin puts pen to paper with any team, given the reputation that precedes him of a guy who takes plenty of nights off, whose work ethic comes in a distant second to his talent level.
Now, it's back to the TD Garden to start a best-of-3 series. The Caps have to feel good about winning a game in which Nicklas Backstrom sat out, serving his one-game suspension for a dirty hit to Peverley at the end of Game 3. They also have to feel good about having the spry Holtby in net, the rookie who may just not know any better and steal this series.
They also have to feel good about being even despite getting only one goal in the series so far from Alexander Ovechkin. Then again, the Bruins have to feel good about that, too. They've done a great job taking away his time and space, making him look, really, like just another guy out there more often than not.
For Boston to get going again, it will need more from Brad Marchand, who has yet to post a point in the series. He had a very non-Little-Ball-of-Hate showing Thursday, registering just one hit and little else. The same goes for Milan Lucic, still looking for his first point of the series, and ditto Tyler Seguin.
Now that the less-desperate middle games of the series have concluded, we can only look forward to what should be a very hard-fought conclusion. Thomas has shown he's still the best in the big-money games until proven otherwise.
"We had a lot of shots, but as far as high-quality scoring chances I wouldn't say we got a lot of those," Thomas told reporters in Washington. "If you're going to get those shots and get pucks to the net, you need people in front of the net screening, tipping and getting rebounds. That's seems to be our problem this series, getting that down."
He also doesn't like to give what he's earned to Washington all that much. Good luck prying that Cup out of his hands.