The Washington Capitals made it to Game 7 of their playoff series against the New York Rangers because Dale Hunter turned them into the New Jersey Devils.
Which could mean, since New Jersey head coach Pete DeBoer has this year's team playing like the Devils of old, a less than thrilling NHL Eastern Conference final if the Capitals keep it up Saturday night in the deciding game in New York.
It took a while, but the Capitals are all aboard with Hunter's game plan, as shown by Wednesday's 2-1 win over the Rangers that tied the best-of-seven series 3-3. The Capitals head coach has them playing classic pre-lockout Devils hockey - get on the opposition early, get a lead, then clamp down on defence, clear rebounds, block shots and get the big save from your goaltender when necessary. And kill penalties, as the Caps did when centre Jeff Halpern took a double-minor penalty late in the second period just after Jason Chimera gave them a 2-0 lead.
Starring in the role of Devils legend Martin Brodeur is rookie goaltender Braden Holtby. In 29 starts, the late-season call-up has yet to lose back-to-back games, avoiding it yet again Wednesday by stopping 30 shots with lots of help from his teammates. They blocked another 24.
Want to know how much the Capitals are buying in to Hunter's way? Alexander Ovechkin, who in his heart of hearts must still be unhappy with his drop in ice time, has three of those blocked shots. He also made the most of his relatively modest 15 minutes on the ice, scoring a power-play goal that gave the Capitals the lead they needed less than two minutes into the game.
But the real stars of the game aside from Holtby were players like Joel Ward, Matt Hendricks and Troy Brouwer, not to mention centre Nicklas Backstrom, who is back to his old form and playing tremendous two-way hockey. Ward, the goat of Game 5 when he took a double-minor penalty that resulted in the tying and winning goals for the Rangers, redeemed himself in a big way.
With checking centre Jay Beagle out with an injury, Hunter moved Matt Hendricks over to centre and put Ward on the line with him and Brouwer. The trio, with a little help from Halpern on the faceoffs, smothered Rangers centre Brad Richards, who was the big star of Game 5.
This time, Richards was the picture of frustration. He won 67 per cent of his faceoffs at home in Game 5 but that changed in Washington for Game 6, when Hunter could get the matchups he wanted thanks to the home-ice privilege of the last player change. Richards won just four of 18 faceoffs in the offensive zone, which meant the Caps were usually in position to clear the puck.
The best shift for the Hendricks line came with two minutes, 43 seconds left in the third period and the Caps protecting a 2-0 lead. Rangers head coach John Tortorella pulled goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for an extra skater and loaded up with his best offensive players, putting Richards with Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan.
But Hendricks, Ward and Brouwer put in a tremendous shift, helping the defence keep the Rangers away from Holtby's crease. Then, with the Rangers still keeping the puck in and the Caps growing tired from defending six attackers, the Caps cleared the puck down the ice and Hendricks made one of the most important plays of the game. He outraced Rangers defenceman Mark Staal to the puck to negate an icing call.
If icing were called, the Capitals would not have been allowed a player change. But Hendricks' play allowed them to get fresh legs on the ice by changing on the fly.
The Rangers finally broke through shortly after that but Holtby made a great glove save on Richards and when they did finally score, with 51 seconds left, it almost served more as an illustration of how the Capitals frustrated them rather than a late burst of success.
Richards finally won a faceoff, the puck went back to the point and the Rangers crowded Holtby. That allowed Gaborik to score on a deflection to give the Rangers hope. After all, they came back to win Game 5 when Ward's penalty allowed them to score a late goal to force overtime. This time, though, the Capitals went right back to work and the visitors never came close.
It will be more difficult for the Capitals to neutralize Richards in Game 7 since they won't have the last player change but good coaches like Hunter can work around that. If the Capitals can stay out of the penalty box and Holtby continues his Cinderella story what once looked like a lost season for them could turn out to be their best one ever.