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christopher l. gasper

Underdog Capitals have stepped up their game

Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara was on the ice before today’s playoff game against the Washington Capitals. The Bruins face elimination with a loss.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara was on the ice before today’s playoff game against the Washington Capitals. The Bruins face elimination with a loss.

It’s time to give the Washington Capitals some credit, as hard as that might be for the hockey diehards in these parts.

The Bruins are not playing for their season Sunday simply because their scoring touch has grown moldy or because some of their best players have gone missing (see: Seguin, Tyler) since the curtain opened on the playoffs. Saturday afternoon at TD Garden was arguably the best game the Bruins have played in this series. For the first time, they got a power-play goal and a goal from one their six 20-goal scorers not named Chris Kelly, and it wasn’t even on the same tally.

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Yet, thanks to the Capitals’ resiliency, the unflappable nature of newbie netminder Braden Holtby — and a dubiously timed slashing call on Benoit Pouliot with 2:50 remaining that set up the game-winner by Troy Brouwer with 1:27 left — the Bruins found themselves pushed to the brink in the rink, trailing 3-2 in the best-of-seven series after a 4-3 loss.

The Black and Gold haven’t backed themselves into a corner. The Capitals have steered them there.

“It’s got to be a little bit of both. You got to give them credit,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “They’ve got a game plan that they’re sticking to. They’re making it hard for us to score some goals.

“At the same time, the reality is that we’ve got some players that can still be better for our hockey club. We don’t have everybody going, and that’s the part we’re trying to do here — get some guys going. Some of those guys are important players for our hockey club, and they’re not where they should be at this stage.’’

Much of the talk during this series from the Bruins and the Spoked-Believers has centered on what the Bruins haven’t done — generate scoring chances, create net-front presence, get goals from their big guns. They got all of that Saturday. Washington still won.

The Bruins are the better team, but the Capitals aren’t puck pushovers or eager foils. They’re frustrating the Bruins with timely scoring, defensive dedication and, yes, very good goaltending. The reigning Cup holders have led Washington for a total of 14:51 in five games.

“We’ve got a lot of people who probably thought we wouldn’t be in this position,’’ said Washington defenseman Karl Alzner. “It’s just desperate hockey. We’re working hard, and we’re getting a lot of good breaks.’’

The knock on Holtby in this series has been that his stellar numbers have been the result of the Bruins’ ineptitude. But the Caps kid goalie, who had 34 saves Saturday, made the stop of the series when he turned away Seguin early in the third period after Washington had regained the lead (3-2) on a strike by former Bruin Mike Knuble at 3:21 of the third.

It was all the more impressive because it would have been easy for the 22-year-old to become unhinged after he allowed two goals in a span of 28 seconds in the final 2 minutes and 39 seconds of the second period, as the rock-solid 2-0 lead Washington took in the second was reduced to detritus.

Defenseman Dennis Seidenberg put Boston on the board, taking a cross-ice pass from Milan Lucic and snapping a shot past Holtby at 17:21 of the second. Before the Capitals and Holtby could catch their breath, the puck was back in their net. With 2:11 left in the period, Brad Marchand whacked a rebound between the pads of Holtby that trickled into the Washington net and you would have thought Terry Francona had just walked to center ice at TD Garden it was so loud.

The goal-starved Bruins had been rejuvenated in less than half a minute. They had penetrated Holtby’s net and his psyche, or so it seemed. But Holtby held his ground, allowing only a power-play goal to Johnny Boychuk at 8:47 of the third that tied the game, 3-3, and ended a playoff streak of 14 straight empty power plays for the Bruins.

“He’s one of the most mentally strong athletes I know,’’ said forward Jay Beagle, who scored Washington’s second goal. “Nothing rattles him. He stepped up and played huge for us.’’

Meanwhile, Tim Thomas, who imitated Holtby’s exaggerated, Mike Richter-esque glove saves in practice Friday, allowed the winner when Brouwer beat him clean . . . glove side. It came just 1:23 after Pouliot was called for a questionable slashing penalty on Nicklas Backstrom, a penalty that didn’t warrant a whistle in these anarchist Stanley Cup playoffs.

Bruins captain Zdeno Chara tipped his cap to the Caps goalie: “He’s playing really well,’’ but Chara’s defense partner, Seidenberg, was sticking with the story that the success of the Capitals is more about what the Bruins aren’t doing than what Washington is doing.

“We have to look at ourselves,” said Seidenberg. ”We have to come out harder, with more energy and get emotionally involved a bit quicker than we have the first few games, and I’m sure we’re going to do that [Sunday].’’

Brouwer said it’s fine if the Bruins want to portray the series as being about their shortcomings. After all, it’s the defending Stanley Cup champions who are on the short end of the series.

Make no mistake, the Capitals benefited from some frozen fortuity. The Bruins rattled a pair of posts in the first, and the officials should have blown the whistle on Washington’s first goal.

Bruins defenseman Joe Corvo took a shot off the leg, felling him. Corvo hobbled around the ice without his stick while the Capitals kept possession and play continued, ultimately leading to an Alexander Semin goal.

Julien was perturbed that play hadn’t been stopped.

But as Julien said, in the playoffs you have to make your own breaks and the Capitals have. That’s why they’ve pushed the Bruins to the brink.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com.
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