Some random observations in the wake of the Washington Capitals’ stunning strike on the Boston Bruins in what is becoming the year of the upset:
Capitals head coach Dale Hunter, who until Joel Ward drove a stake into the defending Stanley Cup champions Wednesday night, was the last Capital to score a series-deciding, Game 7 goal in overtime, back in 1988, can take all the bows. Few expected he would be able to convince a group bound to the whims of diva Alexander Ovechkin to embrace the fortitude necessary to walk a hockey tightrope and out-squeeze the Bruins in a series decided mainly by one-goal or overtime games but he did.
Hunter did it by sticking to his credo – play tight defence and those who play the hardest get rewarded by playing more. Early in the series, perennial softie Alexander Semin started scoring after a season of ennui and Hunter gave him lots of ice time. But by Game 7, Semin reverted to form and Hunter wouldn’t even put him on the second power-play unit.
A year ago, forward Joel Ward, 31, had a great playoff run with the Nashville Predators, rising from journeyman status to score some key goals. That landed him a nice free-agent contract from the Capitals but the success didn’t follow him. Under Hunter, both Ward and another veteran grinder, Mike Knuble, saw their ice time diminish, which was a bit odd considering how both men play the game.
However, early in the Bruins series Knuble and Ward were given a chance and proved to be an effective third line along with fellow working stiff Keith Aucoin. So Hunter rewarded them with more ice time, which is how they came to be on the ice early in overtime in the deciding game and produced the winning goal in the 2-1 win.
Scott Burnside over at ESPN.com has a good summation of how Hunter’s makeover fell into place at the right time and what it meant to a formerly high-flying team that always crashed in the crunch.
Despite all the success, though, there is no guarantee Hunter will return next season. He told his good friend George McPhee, the Caps general manager, he was willing to coach for the season and then decide if he wants to return to the London Knights, the Ontario Hockey League junior team he owns and coaches. We turn to Burnside again for a look at Hunter’s coaching philosophy and what may lie ahead for him.
The work of the referees and linesmen is one of the big topics of this year’s playoffs and was often cited as playing into the violence of some series. There was a telling call late in the third period of the Caps-Bruins game in that regard.
With 2:26 to play, there was a cheesy call on Jason Chimera of the Capitals. He barely put his arms on Bruins defenceman Johnny Boychuk, who fell down and got the penalty call.
Up to that point, the referees were “letting them play” as the saying goes. Suddenly, though, a far stricter call was made. That is the sign of a nervous corps of officials, of a group that is jittery thanks to admonishments from their bosses who may be reacting to all of the criticism.
The Capitals employed their new-found defensive tenacity to deny the Bruins even one decent chance of the power play and lived to win in overtime.
There was much snickering on Twitter and elsewhere in the NHL world Thursday night about Capitals play-by-play man John Walton’s call of Ward’s winning goal. In this era of the unabashed homer behind the microphone, Walton gave the moment the requisite hysteria, as noted by Yahoo.com’s Puck Daddy.
Propelling the snark was the great irony that the Bruins’ resident cheerleader, NESN yakker Jack Edwards, set the bar as low as it goes for over-the-top boosterism. Many were wondering where to find a clip of his call of Ward’s goal.
Finally, there was no shortage of Bruins fans who acted mighty superior last June when the Vancouver Canucks’ fans brought shame to the team and the city by rioting in the streets after the Bruins beat the Canucks for the 2011 Stanley Cup. Well, like everyone else, Boston fans and their city have a dark side, in this case a long history of uneasiness with matters of race. It exploded in all of its ugliness on Twitter following the goal by Ward, who is black.
Fortified by the anonymity afforded by the Internet, the racist tweets directed at Ward by the usual troglodytes set off a Twitter storm that raged into the night. The obscenities unleashed by the small-minded, which were collected by some offended readers and can be found with a Google search, are as repugnant as anything ever posted.