Almost every team in these playoffs has had a martyr. For Ottawa it was Daniel Alfredsson, who was taken out of the series by an elbow to the head. In Chicago it was Marian Hossa who left the game on a stretcher after a jarring hit by repeat offender Raffi Torres. In Washington they have two rallying points. The first is a martyr by the name of Nicklas Backstrom, suspended for Game Four.
Backstrom’s cross check was one of the least menacing to result in a suspension in the playoffs when compared to the Matt Carkner sucker punch beating or the Arron Asham accosting. Nevertheless, Backstrom was suspended, but Caps management, coaches and fans were mad as hell and they didn’t take it lying down.
The Caps faithful at the Verizon Center on Thursday night plastered the glass with pleas to free Nicky. They printed up photos of black and white mug shots of the unassuming Swedish centerman.
While the game was being officiated by different personnel than Monday night, the voices of Washington were heard loud and clear. Caps owner Ted Leonsis weighed in on the officiating saying, “we can’t let the officials play a role in our game planning.” Leonsis added that the team would “ need to remain disciplined and remember that the defending Stanley Cup champs will always get the benefit of the doubt.”
Leonsis wasn’t the only one sounding off on the referees and the decision-making skills of Brendan Shanahan. To make matters more infuriating for the Caps was that Boston’s game-winning goal in Game Three was scored on a missed offside call. Caps head coach Dale Hunter found fault in linesmen Brian Murphy and Tony Sericolo, who worked both Penguins-Flyers Game 1 and Caps-Bruins Game 3. Both games featured a crucial missed offside call resulting in a goal.
“Definitely offside. It was a bad call,” Hunter said. “That’s so important, every little decision on the ice. It cost them with Pittsburgh there,” Hunter said. “They were up, it was an offside goal in the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh series to start all this stuff.”
What fueled the Caps fire in Game Four was not a hatred of their opponent like what we’re seeing come out of the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia series, but a focus on getting justice from “The Man”.
While Washington stood up to the powers that be, their underpaid, inexperienced and now overachieving goaltender gave them a little more to fight for. Braden Holtby strapped the team on his back once again on Thursday night, giving the Caps a stepping stone from one rallying point to the next.
The narrative around Washington is no longer how the referees handed the Bruins the game-winning goal on Monday night or how Shanahan had unjustly taken one of their elite player out of the game, but rather how Holtby robbed the Bruins in Game Four. Opposite Holtby is Bruins tender Tim Thomas, who played more NHL games in last year’s cup run than Holtby has in his entire career. That’s not stopping Holtby from being the Caps saviour, though, and besides wins he’s giving the Caps a positive storyline to focus on within the team.
On Thursday night Holtby stopped 44 shots allowing just one goal, rounding out the night with a 0.978 save percentage and the night’s first star. Holtby’s play (and that of Tim Thomas) has made the series the lowest scoring of the playoffs, averaging three goals per game. Neither team has led by more than one goal the entire series. Washington’s second-string goaltender Michal Neuvirth has been cleared for play but will back up Holtby on Saturday night, giving the newcomer a sign of approval from Caps management.
What will come of Holtby into next season is anyone’s guess, but for now the Caps have something to cheer about in net. With Nicky freed from the Shanaban for Game Five as well, Washington won’t be lacking in inspiration.
Matt Stephen is a writer, not a fighter. He is both a beer and fantasy league veteran and has written about hockey online and in print for The Hockey News. He now covers the spectrum from the White House to Mike Green. He carries a picture of Ovechkin in his wallet.