Wow. Let’s take a breath for a second, Washington sports fans.
In the town not so politely dubbed Loserville in this space a couple of months back, the usually downtrodden Nats are atop the National League, the long-woeful Wizards have won five (albeit meaningless) games in a row, and the Redskins are hours from drafting the quarterback who should allow them to go toe to toe with the likes of the New York Giants, Philadelphia and Dallas, and then there are the Caps.
Ah yes, the Caps, the franchise that has been as allergic to Game 7 success as your eyes on a high pollen count spring day. The same Caps who had enjoyed leads in 26 playoff series during their history and lost 16 of them. The same Caps who had been upset in the first or second round by lower-seeded opponents the past four springs under since-dismissed coach Bruce Boudreau. The same Caps who needed a 4-1 finishing kick just to squeeze into this year’s Stanley Cup wars as the East’s seventh seed.
Yes, those Caps. But Joel Ward’s goal 177 seconds into overtime last night in Boston didn’t just win the game 2-1, end the series and beat the defending champion Bruins, it might just have changed everything for Washington’s hockey team.
It certainly helped that the Caps were the underdogs for a change and didn’t have the burden of high expectations. They had lost 13 of 21 series in their history in which they had enjoyed home-ice advantage, four out of six times by Boudreau’s teams.
But something else happened during the Boston series, the first in NHL history in which all seven games were decided by a goal. Washington kept coming back. The Caps lost Games 1 and 3 but promptly responded by winning Games 2 and 4. And although they lost Game 6 when they were on the brink of closing out the Bruins, they rallied three times to tie that contest before falling in overtime.
In other words, these Caps had heart to go along with their skill. So fittingly, Washington’s goals last night were scored by 30-year-old fourth-liner Matt Hendricks (four goals in 78 regular season games) and 31-year-old third-liner Ward (six goals in 73 games) where Boston’s was tallied by 20-year-old pretty boy Tyler Seguin, their leading scorer this season.
The credit for the transformation of the Caps from the “Young Guns” of Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom and Green to the “Old Guts” of Hendricks, Ward, Knuble and Hamrlik has to go coach Dale Hunter, who was coaxed away from his London, Ont. junior hockey fiefdom to replace Boudreau on Nov. 28.
Washington didn’t exactly take off after the coaching change. However, slowly but surely, the players adapted to Hunter’s defensive-minded style. In 22 games under Boudreau, the Caps averaged 3.18 goals and allowed an average of 3.32. In 60 games under Hunter, those averages dropped to 2.53 and 2.62.
So, with the help of surprisingly dazzling 22-year-old goalie Braden Holtby, the guys used to Rockin’ The Red became the boys Stoppin’ The Puck. During the Boston series in which Washington’s brief 2-0 lead in Game 5 was the only two-goal lead, the Caps scored 16 goals and the Bruins 15. That’s playoff hockey, Hunter hockey. Playing that way is how teams usually wind up hoisting the Cup in June.
Hunter, of course, scored the most famous goal in Caps history, striding half the length of the ice and beating hated Philadelphia goalie Ron Hextall in overtime to win Game 7 in the first round in 1988, completing a comeback from a 3-1 deficit for a team which had blown the same lead the previous year against the New York Islanders.
That Hunter goal still lives in Caps lore, not just because it was so dramatic and came against the cocky Flyers, but because there have been so few such moments in franchise history. Until Ward’s goal last night, Washington’s only other Game 7 triumph came in 2009 on 39-year-old Sergei Fedorov’s goal with 4:56 left in the third period against the New York Rangers in a series the Caps had never led, as was also the case in 1988.
Hunter, who won the Battle of Quebec for the Nordiques against the haughty archrival Montreal Canadiens with an overtime goal as a 21-year-old in 1982, has never had his name engraved on the Cup. But the man is certainly a winner. Washington missed the playoffs just once during his 11 full seasons as its usual second-line center. Hunter is now also the only Caps coach with more playoff series victories than defeats.
The only previous Washington coaches who had led their teams past a defending champion in the playoffs are all enshrined in bronze: Ray Flaherty (1942 over Chicago), George Allen (1972 over Dallas) and Joe Gibbs (1986 over Chicago) and K.C. Jones of the Bullets (1975 over Boston) although Jones was elected for his playing career. Maybe it’s time that Hunter join hockey’s pantheon. He certainly has cemented his place in Washington’s.
David Elfin began covering sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist sin