For once, Caps exceed expectations

BOSTON -- You could hear the Washington Capitals hooting and hollering from well down the hallway at TD Garden.

Inside the dressing room, veteran winger Mike Knuble was flipping the puck that represented the winning goal in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series from hand to hand, turning it over and over.

He wasn't exactly sure what to do with it.

Give it to rookie netminder Braden Holtby, who turned aside 31 of 32 Boston shots en route to a 2-1 overtime win in Game 7 on Wednesday night?

No, Knuble figured it should go to the goal scorer, Joel Ward.

It was Ward who poked home the rebound of a Knuble chance just 2:57 into overtime, although Knuble would have to wait to deliver the puck until the media horde that engulfed Ward in the visitors' locker room cleared out.

Nearby, owner Ted Leonsis embraced GM George McPhee and then high-fived Knuble.

We have been in a lot of Capitals dressing rooms at the end of a playoff series in the past five years where the mood was significantly more somber. That's what happens when you're used to failing to meet expectations.

But in this series, they exceeded everyone's expectations.

"We needed to win a series like this," McPhee told a couple of reporters. "This franchise needed it.

"Boston's a fabulous organization. I really like the way they do things. Love their team. Like the way [GM] Peter Chiarelli manages. Love [Claude] Julien and Cam Neely. They do a great job. We played them as hard as we could, and I don't know how we did it, but it was nice to see that go in. We needed it."

The Capitals have been one of the most maddening teams to watch in recent years.

Explosive, wildly talented and yet seemingly afflicted by a fatal flaw, an inability to convert those positive qualities into anything approaching real playoff success.

Call it a lack of heart or a defensive game plan that wasn't strong enough or whatever, but since 2008, these are the kinds of games the Caps almost always seemed to find a way to lose. They dropped a Game 7 at home in the first round in 2008 to Philadelphia. A year later, they beat the Rangers in the first round in seven but were shellacked by Pittsburgh in a seventh game in the second round in front of their hometown fans.

This year, few gave the Caps much of a chance to compete with the defending Stanley Cup champs. New coach Dale Hunter -- the last Capital to score a series-clinching overtime goal in a Game 7, back in 1988, by the way -- was trying to remake the Caps on the fly. They snuck into the playoffs late in the regular season as the seventh seed. They seemed to have too little and the Bruins too much for Washington to have much of a chance.

But over seven games, Hunter's determination to roll four lines and to stifle the life out of the Bruins bore fruit. By Wednesday night, the series was gridlocked. Three wins apiece, all decided by one goal. Not much given, very little taken.

Game 7 would follow the same pattern and would illustrate just how diametrically different this Caps team is from any of its previous versions.

Matt Hendricks, a defensive specialist the likes of which is worth his weight in Stanley Cup silver to Hunter, scored the opening goal off a deflection midway through the first. Tyler Seguin tied it with a gritty goal in the second.

There was no more scoring until Knuble broke into the Bruins' zone on an odd-man rush, crashing into the net and allowing Ward to sneak home the rebound.

"It's one of the most committed groups we've ever had. They'll do anything to win, they're blocking shots, and they're taking hits and putting the puck in the right places. It's a real committed group. Love the way Dale's coaching," said McPhee, who called on his old friend to take over when he felt the team needed a change from Bruce Boudreau in late November.

"Just nice to win one of these for a change."

Another illustration of how different this group of Capitals is from previous incarnations?

In the jubilant room, captain Alex Ovechkin moved unimpeded while media surrounded any number of his teammates. Ovechkin was not a factor in this win, logging just 16:25 in ice time -- sixth among Caps forwards. In a room rich in storylines, Ovechkin did not figure into any of them.

"A total relief and joy, honest perspective, that's the best series I've ever been involved with since I owned the team," Leonsis said as trainers packed up the Caps' gear for the trip back to Washington and a surprise visit to the second round.

"It's a real character win. Guys really, really played hard and really proud of them. That was a hell of a series."

During the regular season, Knuble was a healthy scratch and Ward, signed this offseason after a big playoff year in Nashville, was buried on the depth chart. But if there were hurt feelings as Hunter tried to impose his vision of how the team should play, Knuble said Wednesday night was a special reminder that all of it was worthwhile.

Knuble, Ward and career minor-leaguer Keith Aucoin emerged as a solid, hard-working third line in this series. Still, Knuble wasn't too interested in regurgitating all the ups and downs of the regular season.

"I don't get too, you know, I'm not too involved, you know what I mean, thinking that way," he said. "The regular season's over, and whatever we went through in the regular season was the regular season. I think Joel and I are thankful, get a good chance to play. We've played very well with Keith. I think we've been very responsible, and we've chipped in and been defensively responsible.

"We're not going to play as much as the other guys, but when we get out there like what we're trying to do with the puck. So it's a big thrill for us."

Finally as the media gaggle began to thin out, Knuble was able to slip Ward the game-winning puck.

The former Canadian collegiate player was still wearing most of his gear and was asked what he was going to do with the puck.

He seemed genuinely perplexed.

"I don't know yet," Ward said. "I just got it, and so much is going on. I haven't had this [much] media attention in a long time. I think it's just carry it home, and I don't know, put it somewhere next to my bed for a minute just to embrace this and enjoy this, and then keep it moving, hopefully get more."

On a night that was so different than so many playoff nights for this franchise, that seems like a good plan.