Underachieving Capitals changing narrative against champion Bruins
It was a reverse-jinx theory that even some of the most superstitious types had finally abandoned, even as the playoffs began. The theory: Maybe it was the best thing for the Washington Capitals to enter the playoffs as a low seed this time around. No more "If this team doesn't win a Cup, the whole season will be a bust" beast of a burden expectations-wise.
No pressure. A chance to play with house money. What's there to lose?
Those are the kinds of labels that can make a team especially dangerous, especially in the first round of an NHL playoff series. But nobody much believed the kind of reverse-jinxing upset that is now taking place against the Boston Bruins actually would.
Not with a Caps team that supposedly had no chemistry, not among the players and certainly not with gruff new coach Dale Hunter. Not with a Caps team that allowed more goals than scored in the regular season (222-230). And certainly not with a Caps team that entered the playoffs with their top two goalies (Tomas Vokoun, Michael Neuvirth) out with injuries and rookie Braden Holtby the default starter.
It would be a short series and a merciful end to a season that started with the usual grand expectations in Washington. It would, in the final analysis, just be chalked up as a lost year. Or something like that.
Yeah, the experts always know what they're talking about in this sport. After Saturday's 4-3 win on the home ice of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, the Caps are now a Sunday afternoon Verizon Center home-ice win away from sending the black and gold home for the year.
Troy Brouwer's goal with 1:27 left won it for Washington. A goal is a goal is a goal, but boy was it a softy allowed by Tim Thomas, a simple wrist shot from the near circle that Thomas waved at and whiffed badly.
The narrative of the series now, as unimaginable as it seemed beforehand, is that Thomas suddenly looks like the nervous rookie and Holtby the confident veteran winner.
No getting around it, this loss was on Thomas. His teammates -- the ones he disparaged after Game 4 for not wanting it bad enough around the other net -- bailed him out a couple times to get to 3-3 with overtime looming.
Thomas was terrible on Washington's second, third and fourth goals. On the second, by Jay Beagle at 14:27 of the second, he kicked out a rebound far too big on Jason Chimera's short-side shot from the left circle. Granted, teammate David Krejci was equally poor, who instead of clearing the zone put it onto the stick of Beagle near the blue line. From there, Beagle skated in and beat Thomas with a fairly long-range, stoppable shot that put Boston in a 2-0 hole.
Dennis Seidenberg and Brad Marchand would tie it 28 seconds apart late in the period, though, creating a seemingly positive vibe around the TD Garden about what the third would entail.
Instead, Thomas would let in two more turkeys. The tiebreaking goal, to Caps veteran Mike Knuble at 3:21, came after Thomas kicked out a harmless wrister from Joel Ward from the right wall over to the opposite side, perhaps faultily thinking his defense would be well ahead of any onrushing Caps forwards and make a simple clear. Didn't happen.
Bruins fourth-liner Shawn Thornton was tardy on the back check of Knuble, and so was Thomas in reacting to his own careless kick-out.
No worries, though, as Johnny Boychuk would tie it back up at 8:47, beating Holtby with a rocket from the point on the power play -- Boston's first power-play goal in the first round in the last two years (0-35).
But then came the Brouwer goal -- and to be fair to Thomas, it came on the power play, after Benoit Pouliot was called for slashing on Nicklas Backstrom. Was it a marginal call, so late in a tied playoff game? Perhaps. But the bottom line is if Thomas makes a routine save, the game might still be ongoing.
The Bruins did well to get three past Holtby, not so much because he was brilliant (though his stop of Tyler Seguin early in the third in which he did the splits certainly was), but Washington's collapsing defense around him made it very tough for the Bruins to get clear shots on him.
Washington was credited with 19 blocks (which seems low) to Boston's 11. Aside from Marchand's rebound putback from in close to tie it in the second, most everything seemed to come from the perimeter for the Bruins. Any close interior passing was just about impossible through all the diving bodies in white and active sticks.
"It's collapsing back to the net, that's the main thing. We're all working hard now, we're doing what it takes. Obviously great goaltending helps," Caps defender Karl Alzner told NBC's Pierre McGuire afterward.
Now, the Bruins have less than 24 hours to figure things out in a potential elimination game in Washington. They may also have to play without defender Joe Corvo, who blocked a shot prior to Washington's first goal, by Alex Semin, and never played again. And, potential Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron played sparingly after taking successive hits up high from Semin and Alexander Ovechkin in the third. Bergeron's concussion history makes that a major concern.
Now the Caps are in the favorites position, the team expected to win again, at least a series. Will they then revert to their old form of underachievement when things get like this?
We'll find out soon.