It had been the closest series in NHL playoff history coming in, so did we already know that Wednesday's Game 7 between the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins would go to overtime? Yup.
Did we think Matt Hendricks and Joel Ward would score the only goals for the Capitals, and that this would be enough to end the reign of the defending Stanley Cup champions on their home ice? Nope.
Hendricks and Ward, two Caps forwards who combined for 10 goals in 151 regular-season games, were all the offense needed for Washington rookie goalie Braden Holtby in a 2-1 overtime win at TD Garden, ending Boston's defense of the Cup and ensuring there will be no back-to-back winner of Lord Stanley's silver punchbowl again since Detroit did it with a sweep of Washington in 1998.
The better team won this game and this series. The Capitals may have only been a millimeter better than the Bruins over the seven games, but that's all they needed. Washington deserved it, and now the Caps are moving on to the second round.
"To come into Boston and beat the Stanley Cup champions, it took everything we had," rookie Capitals coach Dale Hunter told reporters.
Want to know why Washington deserved to win? Watch the final 2:27 of regulation again, along with the 2:57 of OT.
The Caps had to overcome a questionable call by referee Eric Furlatt at the 17:33 mark, a holding whistle to Jason Chimera that, while technically a penalty, was one that could have been overlooked just like any number of other plays in Game 7 of a playoff series. The Bruins couldn't have asked for much more than a power play with 2:27 left, in their building in a seventh game. But as was the case pretty much the whole series, the Bruins just couldn't get anything done on the power play. After the Caps killed it off, you could sense the Bruins and their crowd deflate quite a bit. Not only because of that, but also because road teams had already won 10 of 14 previous OT games in the playoffs.
Make that 11 out of 15. The Caps won it on Ward's backhander off a rebound allowed by Tim Thomas, following a blocked shot by Mike Knuble of a Benoit Pouliot attempted dump-in to the Washington zone, so he could give his team a line change. When Knuble blocked it, though, Boston was caught flat-footed the other way.
Knuble, the former Bruin who turns 40 this Fourth of July, set off emotional fireworks in the nation's capital with his inspirational block and rush down the ice with the puck. Knuble's play would have just been another footnote to the game, though, had not Ward made a brilliant decision before Knuble had even gotten his shot away.
As Knuble was readying his backhander, Ward cut inside Bruins defender Greg Zanon, from the right to left side in anticipation of a possible rebound on a short-side shot. When the puck came back out following Thomas' initial stop, Ward put it in to the far side. "(Knuble) carried the mail right to the net, and I just have to follow it up," Ward told NBC. "We were excited going into OT, but we were a little nervous with about two-and-a-half left. Killing that penalty was huge."
All seven games were decided by one goal, a remarkable outcome given that few people thought the Capitals had much of a chance.
Holtby evened the playing surface, though, with a tremendous showing.
While he had a few shaky moments, including the big rebound that allowed Tyler Seguin to tie the score 1-1 in the second period for Boston, he never seemed to let the Bruins get any lasting momentum.
"I learned more every day. Every performance maybe wasn't better, but the experience that I take out of it I hope will make me better," Holtby told NBC. "I think as a group tonight, we felt we had nothing to lose. The pressure was on them."
It showed on Boston in this game, but not always in a way you expected. The Bruins didn't look overly nervous in the first period, they looked flat and uninspired. They were booed off the ice by their fans afterward, even though Boston had an 11-5 edge in shots on goal. It was a totally deceiving number, though. Washington had a better forecheck than the hosts, and the Bruins got the first of four power plays in the game (to just one for the Caps) late in the period that did nothing.
But to berate the Bruins' effort would be wrong, as they reached back in a champions' resolve to play an excellent second. Fact is, we could all be saying what a heroic group this was, to come back from 3-2 down and win another seven-game series. It could have easily gone their way in the end.
The Bruins just didn't have enough scoring to do it this time around, and Thomas just couldn't bail them out again. With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear the Bruins goofed when they let sniper Michael Ryder leave for nothing last summer. Surely, the B's should have found a place for a guy who scored some big playoff goals last year and 35 more for Dallas. It also didn't help, of course, in losing Nathan Horton to a concussion. Horton, after all, was the man who scored the two overtime goals that got the Bruins Game 7 wins last year against Montreal and Tampa Bay. And it didn't help Claude Julien's squad that valuable two-way forward Patrice Bergeron played hurt the last two games, unable to take faceoffs.
Still, Bergeron was almost the hero. He had a great scoring chance in the first minute of OT, a partially open net with the puck on his stick at the left side. But Caps defender Karl Alzner blocked it and play went on.
Play would only continue on for a couple more minutes. For the seventh straight time in the playoffs, an overtime game was decided in the first six minutes. Before the game, Knuble gave a quote to the
Knuble and the Caps would get it. And they deserved it.