Back to Basics

Photo by Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post

Bruins fans have a saying.

Whether it’s Jack Edwards on NESN, Mike from Walpole or Jack from Dedham on 98.5 The Sports Hub, or the countless people I know from going to school in New England the last six years of my life, it always comes up when the Bruins play.

“You don’t poke the bear.”

Or, more accurately, “Yah don’t wanna poke the beahh, dood.”

The Washington Capitals poked the bear on Monday night inside Verizon Center.  And they probably lost the game because of it.

In games one and two, the Caps refused to bite on the extracurricular activities that the Bruins feed off of.  Boston plays on the edge.  They always have and always will.  One of the reasons that makes them so tough to play against and such a good team is that they are able goad players on the other team in to that kind of stuff.

You saw it on several instances.  When Tim Thomas blatantly attempted to kick Troy Brouwer at the top of his crease in game two, Brouwer just stood there.  He didn’t turn around and shove Thomas.  He didn’t try and start a fight.  He took the high road and he skated away.

When Thomas blockered Nicklas Backstrom in the head after a net mouth scramble in game two, and then Backstrom was taken down by David Krejci, there wasn’t a fight.  Harsh words, maybe, but very little physicality.  Very little response by the Capitals.

The Caps, as we know, won game two, and they could have won game one, because they didn’t bite in to the extra stuff, and they frustrated players like Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic whose job it is to play on the edge.  Boston was annoyed by it, and they said so to the media.  Everyone knew what was going on.  The Caps kept their composure, they stayed to their game plan, and they were able to grind out some goals and a playoff game.

Read on.

Thomas noticed it, too. “We got a little bit more of our emotions involved towards the end; obviously, not myself because I’m the goalie,” said the reigning holder of the Conn Smythe Trophy. “I guess that’s the way it usually turns out in playoff series. It was pretty mild the first two games, though.”

Early in game three, the Caps were doing the same thing, managing to take the lead twice.  They were playing smart, frustrating Boston, and taking advantage of their offensive opportunities.

Then, the wheels came off.

They allowed the Bruins to get in their heads in the final period, and the fourth and winning goal for Boston came directly from the visiting team stirring the pot.

“It was a rough game, there especially in the third period…they tried to get some of our skilled players off their game,” said Dale Hunter.

Matt Hendricks standing up to Milan Lucic, while admirable, probably won’t work in the long run.  Karl Alzner’s gesture, while funny, will definitely not work in the long run.  If the Caps get in a fighting match with the Bruins over who can get more physical, they will lose.  If they give the Bruins more of what they feed off of, they will lose.

I’m not saying that the Caps shouldn’t be physical.  Of course they should.  But there is a line between smart physicality, defending your teammates, and dumb chippiness after the whistle.

Nicklas Backstrom, who has been suspended for a game because of the fact that he cross-checked Rich Peverley after the final horn, got goaded in.  He saw that Peverley had tripped Alex Ovechkin, and he didn’t like it.  Whether he saw that Peverley’s act was in response to Ovechkin hitting Peverley, I don’t know.  But Backstrom, who had gotten sent to the penalty box twice prior in the game for cross-checking penalties in scrums was frustrated, and he took it out on Peverley after the whistle by cross-checking him in the shield.

What Backstrom did got him a match penalty and that one game suspension.  Which is not smart, because the Capitals cannot win this series without their best player.

It was especially not smart because of some of the acts that have gone virtually unpunished in this year’s playoffs.  The NHL is going to come down hard on Backstrom, in all likelihood.  I’m not saying it’s fair, but it’s true.

And it could cost his team a playoff series that was completely up in the air as late as 9:30 on Monday night.

If they get back to the basic and structured hockey that frustrates the Bruins because they do the same things, they have a chance.  But it has to happen soon.  They can’t wait around.  And they cannot, whatever they do, bite in to the physical stuff after the whistle that defines the Bruins.

If they don’t, the end will come quickly.

Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR.  Follow him on Twitter here.