April 21, 2021

Washington Capitals Game 3 Re-Cap: Bruins pull Caps into their game; take series lead over Caps

(Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)


In a fraction of an instant, a well-intentioned effort by Washington Capitals defenseman Roman Hamrlik to get in front of a Zdeno Chara slap shot turned into an unfortunate assist for the shot. The resultant deflection escaped Braden Holtby, allowing the Boston Bruins to win 4-3 in the first game of this series to end in regulation and take a two games to one lead in this Eastern Conference Quarterfinals matchup.

Of at least equal or greater concern to the Caps now though is the fate of their top center, Nicklas Backstrom, who was assessed a match penalty for a cross-check to Bruins forward Rich Peverley after the final horn, triggering an automatic game suspension pending review from the league office.

The media weren’t informed of the match penalty until after speaking with Backstrom in the dressing room. Caps coach Dale Hunter, who was involved in enough of this type of activity in his playing days, said, “They gave him a match but I think the league will review it and rescind it,” Hunter said. “If you seen it, it was not that bad.”

Backstrom was asked if he thought Boston was purposefully trying to start stuff after the whistles. “Yeah, I mean, yeah I think they were. And they were allowed to.”

Backstrom’s temper got the best of him and it could cost the Caps dearly for Game Four. Watching this series and this game unfold, you get the feeling this was a very calculated effort by the Bruins to try to get under the Caps’ skin. It seems to have worked.

This was an otherwise very entertaining game, if you were able to watch it from a neutral perspective. It was a back-and-forth affair. Both teams made mistakes that cost them. Both goalies looked human after playing out of their heads for the first two games in Boston.  The Bruins made a much more concerted effort to drive to the net. And they made a much more concerted effort to intimidate the Caps. It was in the game plan.

The scrums, cheap shots, late shots, wrestling matches; all of it was calculated by Boston coach Claude Julien, who is trying to play the aggrieved party in the media. Referring to Backstrom’s penalty, and a couple of other non-calls in the first two games, Julien said, “I guess the only thing that’s a little disappointing for me is the fact that this is the third time in three games that our players have been cross-checked in the face.”

“You hope that those things don’t get out of hand,” Julien continued. “I’m going to say the same thing I said last time: Somebody else has to deal with that, and not us, and as a coach I’m going to continue to get my team ready for the next game.”

Yeah, I know. Boo hoo.

The book on the Caps is simple in the playoffs: take the body, get in their face, intimidate them. For the first 11 periods of this series, the Caps gave as good as they got. They really did. But in the third period tonight, they cracked. And it cost them, and could cost them for Game Four if the league doesn’t rescind Backstrom’s suspension.

I’m not blaming Backstrom for letting his emotions spill over. All series the Bruins have been targeting his head, even Thomas took a poke at Backstrom with his blocker pad. This is the dark underbelly of the NHL. It’s the reason the Caps, as so many teams are these days, so tight-lipped about injury information. If your opponent knows where you are weak, they can — and will — attack. Yes, it’s disgusting. Yes, it’s barbaric. But to think it’s not part of the game, especially in the playoffs, is foolish.

There was a lot of complaining about the refs after this one. Why was Brooks Laich called for a penalty when Milan Lucic suplexed him before a face-off? Why was there no call when Jason Chimera was tackled breaking up ice? But for every call Caps fans went against their team, Boston fans had an answer. Where was the high-stick against Hendricks when he removed Chara’s helmet with his stick? How did Karl Alzner avoid a penalty in the late third period scrum when Lucic got a double minor? These aren’t blown calls or missed assignments.

This was not a missed call. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Twice in the second period after whistles, and players were headed back to their respective benches, Lucic put his stick between a Caps’ players skates and tripped them. Once it was Semin, the other time Wideman. When Lucic got out of the box during the time out after serving his coincidental unsportsmanlike penalties with Laich, he skated directly over to the Caps bench and started jawing at them.

This is playoff hockey, how the league wants it. The drama only adds to the attention.

It’s been like this for time immemorial. The NHL has always operated under the axiom that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. It’s not just the league front office though. The teams themselves perpetuate the agonizing notion of “playoff hockey.” Why does the game have to be so different, so violent, so ugly in the playoffs? Because they want it to be.

The Caps have finally bought into it as well, and we’re seeing the results. Close, physical, ugly, one-goal games. They are in this series because of it. They have stood up to the Bruins, but in the process have been suckered into a game they have very little chance of winning. To be perfectly blunt, the Bruins are built for this game. They are built for playoff hockey. The Caps, with their skill and speed, are not. They’re gamely trying, which is why Alexander Semin received so many accolades during and after Game Two.

But any team that rosters Keith Aucion, Mattheiu Perreault and Jeff Schultz in the playoffs isn’t built for “playoff hockey”.

The Bruins are talented, yes. But more so, they are big, and they are mean. There’s a reason the Caps look so small against the Bruins: it’s because they are smaller than the Bruins. There’s a reason Lucic and Marchand and Chara and Seidenberg “get away” with all the extracurriculars: it’s their game, and it’s part of playoff hockey.

Up until the third period of last night’s game, the Caps had been doing an excellent job of staying away from it, and it was the Bruins that were frustrated. But the B’s continued to chip away. The scrums got progressively nastier. Then came the melee that led to the four-on-four game-winner, then Backstrom’s ill-advised cross-check. The Caps finally cracked, and took the retaliatory shots that are always worse than the original infraction.  Karl Alzner’s taunt to Lucic might funny, but what’s more out of character to you, Lucic’s actions or Alzner’s? How about Backstrom’ three separate cross-checking penalties?

It will be utterly fascinating to see how the Capitals respond in Game Four. Because the Bruins aren’t going to change their game plan one bit.

(Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)


Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP


  1. Clearly not a neutral commentary of the events of the evening; Playing down infractions of one team to support behavior of another is completely ridiculous. I would have mentioned the poor officiating before anything else, including O’s two bumps with officials during the game (I am a Bruins fan, but also a hockey fan.) I would say that there are too many refs on the ice, but they couldn’t manage to have a handle on the game from any point of view.

    Playoff hockey is physical! If you can’t stand the heat, get off the ice. Real hockey players drop their sticks and duke it out, otherwise it is assault with a deadly weapon. Play hard, skate fast and keep the sticks down….After all it is a GAME!

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Thanks for the comment. It’s not intended to be a neutral commentary. My opinion is not that they refs are allwoing plays one way or the other to any one team’s specific advantage, rather they are reffing to the type of game the league wants to see in the playoffs. If my tone sounded like I thought the refs were giving one team or the other unfari advantage, that was not my intent. but the Bruins did a better job of adjusting to the game the refs were calling.

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