by David Elfin

When the Washington Capitals last tangled with the big, bad Boston Bruins, they stunned the then-defending Stanley Cup champions on Joel Ward’s overtime goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at TD Garden.

During the 10-1/2 months since, Washington has changed coaches, with Adam Oates replacing ex-Caps teammate Dale Hunter, while Boston has changed goalies, with Tuukka Rask replacing two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas.

However, when the Bruins invade Verizon Center tonight, the Caps are expecting a battle very similar to those of last April’s playoff series. All seven games were decided by a goal, four in overtime and one in double overtime.

“I was fortunate to get a good whack at the puck,” said grinder Ward, who laughed when asked if he expected the Bruins would target him tonight because his rebound tally ended their hopes of becoming just the second repeat Cup winner during the past 20 seasons. “It was a hard-fought series [with] a lot of ups and downs. It was fun.”

Caps captain Alex Ovechkin, who was hounded by Boston’s top defensive pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg last spring, didn’t agree that it was “fun” dueling with those big, talented blue-liners. But Ovechkin still called it, “a very good series.”

While Ward was the ultimate hero, then-rookie goalie Braden Holtby was the star, allowing just 15 goals. Holtby has also been the main reason that Washington has won six of its past nine games after a miserable 2-8-1 start under Oates during this lockout-shortened season. The 23-year-old goalie has started each of those past nine games while posting a 2.11 goals-against average, a .934 save percentage and three shutouts, the second one last Tuesday against Southeast Division leader Carolina and the third five days later at Winnipeg, which had ruined Washington’s home opener on Jan. 22.

Holtby and Oates both credit an improving defense which is allowing the goalie to see almost every shot he faces as has usually been the case with record-setting goalie Martin Brodeur of New Jersey, for whom Oates was an assistant the past two years. Holtby also isn’t giving up a lot of rebounds, which is a sign that he’s focused.

“It starts with Braden, but we’re starting to jell,” said Matt Hendricks, whom Oates has promoted to the top line alongside center Mike Ribeiro and right wing Ovechkin. “You can see the cohesion. You can see the confidence. It’s running right down the bench, not only with the players, but with the coaches.”

Despite that renewed confidence and Holtby’s hot hand, the Caps are still in the Southeast cellar with 17 points, a whopping 13 fewer than the Bruins, who are second in the Eastern Conference standings.

“We’ve been playing very strong of late,” Holtby said. “We need to play a very sound game against a very good team in order to get two points. I think that’s gonna pay off way more than their emotions from losing to us last year.”

Perhaps, but Hendricks expects the Bruins to be especially pumped.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow when you lose in seven games,” Hendricks said. “We’re gonna have our hands full. Boston’s a very … confident team and they don’t like anyone beating them. They’re relentless.”

Added Ward, “I’m sure they’re gonna want to come in here and beat us.”

The Caps felt that way when they visited Madison Square Garden on Feb. 17, but they came up on the short end of a 2-1 score to the New York Rangers, who had ousted them in the seven-game conference semifinals last May. But since losing again three nights later to the defending Eastern champion Devils, Washington has been on a roll, winning three of four.

Oates said last Saturday’s second period against the Jets “might have been our best period all year.” A similar 60-minute performance will probably be required tonight against a team as good as the Bruins, who also figure to be more excited than they would be typical for a game against a last-place team from a different division.

“They know who they’re playing,” Oates said.

David Elfin began writing about 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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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