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Defense first approach paying off for Capitals

For two games, and especially on Saturday, the Capitals have appeared to buy into the Dale Hunter approach.
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For two games, and especially on Saturday, the Capitals have appeared to buy into the Dale Hunter approach.

Two games and 144 minutes 14 seconds into the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Washington Capitals have allowed one goal in overtime, one other in regulation, and their penalty killing has been perfect.

No, this is not a leftover April Fools’ joke, or spam e-mail, nor did your faithful puck chronicler transpose “Washington Capitals’’ for “Boston Bruins.’’ The first-round Washington-Boston playoff series is tied, 1-1, and the fold-up-easier-than-patio-chairs Capitals have been every bit as determined on the puck as the defending Cup champion Bruins.

“They played the Rangers in the playoffs last year and every game was close,’’ offered Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, following the Capitals’ 2-1 win in double overtime Saturday on Causeway Street. “So we knew what to expect . . . and they’ve been exactly what we thought.’’


Not me, and not a lot of other folks, either. The Capitals dumped longtime coach Bruce Boudreau during the season, in large part because of lingering concerns that he didn’t preach the kind of defensive game that is needed to win in the postseason.

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They installed the dastardly Dale Hunter behind the bench in hopes that he could make everyone more responsible on defense, more aware of winning puck battles, and the end result was a No. 7 seed in the East.

All in all, mixed results, a run-and-gun team learning to retool on the fly. But for two games, and especially on Saturday, the Capitals have appeared to buy into the Hunter approach. They’ve been responsible in all three zones - at least 2 1/2 more than they were in the Boudreau days - and they’ve also received the ultimate boost in net, where the all-but-unknown Braden Holtby has been solid, confident, a stabilizing force.

Has the 22-year-old Holtby been sensational? No. But that is largely because the Bruins have lacked net presence and goal-mouth battle, which in itself is a reflection that Washington’s defensemen have been very good at moving pucks quick from deep in their zone and allowing Boston forwards very few second and third cracks at the net.

“It’s outstanding, it’s huge,’’ said Holtby, reflecting on a Game 2 effort that had the Capitals outhit the Bruins, 41-36, and block 27 shots - more than three times the eight Boston blocked. “I don’t think we gave up an odd-man break, a two-on-one or a breakaway all day. That means everyone is committed.’’


It also means the Capitals were often in a 1-4 defensive posture, or very close to it, displaying an old-time NHL road game approach by the wily Hunter. One way to try to counteract that is to dump pucks deep and pound the walls in an attempt to: 1. regain possession and 2. wear down defensemen. The Bruins did some of that, but not nearly enough, which coach Claude Julien noted.

“We need more drive to the net,’’ said Julien, “and more battle along the boards. We don’t have a good enough commitment in that area to win a hockey game.’’

The Capitals can be better in those areas, too, but let’s remember that they are still learning that kind of postseason lesson. The W’s don’t always go to the slick and skilled at this time of year. The Canucks and Penguins have found that out here in the first round. They might be the two most skilled teams in the playoffs. Through two games, they posted 0-2 records.

“It’s the way you have to be in the playoffs,’’ said Hunter, asked if the double-OT win convinced him that his club is believing what he’s preaching. “You have to battle. [Saturday] was definitely a playoff-type game.’’

A man of few words, Hunter. When he played, he stayed in character, best summed up as dirty, dirtier, and dirtiest. And definitely defensive. Hunter’s idea of a “battle’’ is that everything goes, including using the stick as if one were in a knife fight.


Over the years in the playoffs, he pitchforked Terry O’Reilly in the groin at the old Garden, and he also nearly decapitated Craig Janney in one game at the old Cap Center in Landover, Md.

Today’s Capitals aren’t doing that, and probably aren’t capable of that, but they are fashioning their version of battle-ready. Most of all, for Games 1 and 2, they didn’t back down and they didn’t get pushed around. The Bruins are bigger, stronger, and better at that sort of thing, and they’ll undoubtedly take it up a notch or two for the next two games in Washington.

But that’s risky business, because too much push and shove could lead to a march to the penalty box, and the Capitals still have plenty of scoring left in their lineup from the Boudreau days to make them pay for it.

“Everyone is buying in,’’ said Holtby, asked if Saturday’s defensive effort, front to back, was the best he’s seen from his teammates from his limited playing time the last two seasons. “A lot of guys in here have been disappointed by the playoff results here the last few years.

But you can see the physical play. Guys are blocking shots, sacrificing their bodies. I think it’s obvious we are committed right now.’’

Committed and casting a different look. The team from the city of cherry blossoms looks as though it may not wilt.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.