WASHINGTON - Game 3 of the Bruins-Capitals series did not start well for Dennis Seidenberg.
On the opening shift, Alex Ovechkin flattened the Bruins defenseman with a hit-to-hurt slam along the boards in the Boston zone. There was nothing Seidenberg could do but wait for the inevitable: a full-sprint Ovechkin assault.
“Tough one. I definitely felt that,’’ Seidenberg said with a smile. “But I saw him coming. I saw the puck going around. I saw him coming. I couldn’t do much more. He’s very strong and thick. I couldn’t do anything else.’’
A night that started with a face full of Ovechkin ended with a game-changing shift for Seidenberg. At 18:07 of the third period, Zdeno Chara hummed a slap shot that deflected off Washington defenseman Roman Hamrlik and knuckled past goalie Braden Holtby for the game-winning goal.
Chara’s puck wouldn’t have gone in if not for Seidenberg.
The play started when Chara lifted his stick to signal for a right-point blast. Seidenberg knew that if Chara missed the net, the puck would most likely deflect off the end boards and rim around the wall. Seidenberg started to pinch during Chara’s windup. The shot indeed went wide and rolled around the boards, just as Seidenberg anticipated.
Seidenberg’s followup shot didn’t go through. But he regained control of the puck and curled around the net.
Throughout the series, the Capitals have been overloading the strong side in the Boston zone. As Seidenberg completed the wraparound, Hamrlik, Mike Green, and Marcus Johansson drifted his way. Seidenberg knew that if Patrice Bergeron rotated back to cover his left point position, there would be plenty of room available up top.
Bergeron, being the team’s most defensively aware forward, had done exactly that. There was no need for Seidenberg to rotate back to a defensive formation. Instead, he remained in front to screen Holtby. With Seidenberg limiting his sightlines, Holtby couldn’t get a good bead on Chara’s shot.
“Bergy’s a very responsible player,’’ Seidenberg said. “I don’t have to worry about that.’’
Seidenberg’s first priority is defense. He and Chara have matched against Ovechkin the entire series. That will not change.
But Seidenberg’s three-zone efficiency has made him the Bruins’ most valuable player so far.
“It’s his overall game,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “We talk about how he can defend. But he’s a good skater. He’s got a great shot. He can make plays. When he’s confident, he’s as good a defenseman as any in this league.’’
Through three games, Seidenberg has zero goals and one assist. He is averaging 27:08 of ice time, second after Chara (27:19). He has been credited with 12 hits and six blocked shots.
Of the 31 shifts Seidenberg has averaged per game, most have been of the ice-bag variety. In Game 1, Seidenberg targeted Ovechkin in center ice. The two came together in an open-ice car crash. In Game 2, the two clashed again after a whistle, with Ovechkin getting his stick in Seidenberg’s face.
Just about all of Seidenberg’s ice time has taken place during the most hostile of occasions.
Seidenberg has welcomed every such shift.
“It’s a lot of fun,’’ he said of the showdown against Ovechkin. “It’s a tough battle. But it’s fun. It’s playoff hockey. You play a little harder. That’s what it’s all about.’’
It is no surprise that Seidenberg has jacked up his game in the postseason. Last year, he played a critical role in the Bruins’ march to the Stanley Cup.
The Bruins were in an 0-2 hole against Montreal in the first round when the bosses decided to pair Seidenberg with Chara. In the five remaining first-series games and the three rounds that followed, Seidenberg and Chara became the league’s most smothering shutdown pair.
Nothing has changed.
The Bruins knew they could put the two together in the playoffs, but they were wary of doing it in the regular season. The coaching staff didn’t want to create a top-heavy defensive six-pack.
But a four-game nosedive in March - which started with a 4-3 loss to Washington - led to desperate times. By March 17, the Bruins had tumbled into seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Ottawa had claimed second.
That day, Julien played his best remaining hand. Chara and Seidenberg were reunited. The Bruins went 5-1-0 in their next six games.
They’ve continued to click in the playoffs. In Game 3, Seidenberg tried his best to stop Ovechkin from scoring. After Ovechkin tracked down a Brooks Laich dump-in, Seidenberg raced after the left wing. Seidenberg got his stick on Ovechkin’s blade, but Ovechkin still beat Tim Thomas to give Washington a 2-1 second-period lead.
It has been Ovechkin’s only goal. Seidenberg’s play has helped keep him from exploding.
“He’s just one of those guys in the playoffs whose whole game comes around,’’ Julien said. “We shouldn’t perceive that as a guy who doesn’t do enough in the regular season.
“It’s a guy, when the chips are down and the games are big, who elevates his game to that level. Some players can. Some players can’t. He’s one of those guys that can.’’Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.