ARLINGTON, Va. - Following Sunday morning’s optional practice, the topic of conversation between Capitals players and the media on the eve of Monday night’s Game 3 against the Bruins was overwhelmingly focused on defense.
And why not? There have been four goals scored in 144-plus minutes of hockey in the series, which is tied at 1-1. Tim Thomas of the Bruins and rookie Braden Holtby of the Capitals have been exceptional in goal. The teams have combined for 146 hits and the Capitals have blocked 49 shots.
“I think we may have frustrated them a little bit,’’ said Capitals center Matt Hendricks. “I think [the Bruins] look at their team as a little bit more offensive, so to keep them to one goal in each game is good for us. We need to keep that going.’’
It’s no secret that since Washington coach Dale Hunter took over for Bruce Boudreau 22 games into the season, his mission has been to craft the Capitals into a defense-first team - a move that was met with much consternation among a fan base accustomed to watching one of the higher-powered offenses in the league for three of the last four seasons.
While the Capitals won four consecutive Southeast Division titles under Boudreau on the strength of a relentless offense, they consistently failed to perform in the playoffs.
And although Washington is merely two games into its first-round series against the second-seeded Bruins, the feeling in the locker room is that as long as the defense remains strong, they can knock off the defending Stanley Cup champions.
“The guys in this room have bought in for the last month or so of the regular season and so far in the playoffs,’’ Hendricks said. “It’s been going really well for us.’’
The commitment to blocking shots, and playing physically and with patience frustrated the Bruins in the first two games at TD Garden, which is partly why Boston coach Claude Julien made it clear that his team must create more traffic in front of Holtby as the series moves forward.
“It’s about recognizing that they’re going in front of the net early and boxing them out,’’ said Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner. “You start your box out 5 or 6 feet away from the net and have that space to hold them off.’’
The pairing of Alzner and John Carlson proved effective against Boston’s top line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Rich Peverley in Game 2. The Capitals forced many of the Bruins’ shots to come from the perimeter, allowing Holtby to feel comfortable.
“It makes me play everything more honest. I know that I don’t ever have to cheat,’’ Holtby said. “You see the plays [the Bruins] are making, especially plays across the crease, they’re nonexistent. Our D has been so solid.’’
Highlighting Washington’s defensive metamorphosis has been Holtby, who is filling in for the injured Tomas Vokoun (groin) and Michal Neuvirth (lower body). The 22-year-old has stopped 72 of the 74 shots he’s faced in the series.
“When you look at the commitment to blocked shots, it has been outstanding,’’ said Holtby. “Not only that, but there were a lot of plays [in Game 2] where they didn’t shoot because we were in a position to block shots.’’
On Sunday, Hunter provided his former third-stringer with a significant endorsement.
“Holtsy’s been good for us. He’s making big saves,’’ Hunter said. “Holtsy’s our goalie.’’
The Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, native entered this series with 16 games of playoff experience at any level, but credits postseason losses in the Western Hockey League and American Hockey League for his current success.
Another encouraging sign for the Capitals emerged on Sunday when defenseman Mike Green said he feels the best he has in two years following hernia surgery. A healthy Green further bolsters Washington’s defense, a unit that already believes it has what it takes to silence the Bruins.
“[Defense] is huge in these games,’’ Carlson said. “It’s all about sacrifice right now and I think both teams are doing that.’’