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Sports

Tight matchup turning into a hit

Boston BruinsNHLBraden HoltbyWashington CapitalsClaude GirouxPittsburgh Penguins

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It was Brooks Laich who pointed out late Monday night that one never knows when a Stanley Cup playoff series will turn chippy — or worse — but that it is almost inevitable.

"Sometimes it happens right away in the first game, sometimes it takes two or three games," he said in the quiet of a losing locker room. "Things start to happen. They're trying to get you off your game, you're trying to get them off theirs."

The Washington Capitals forward smiled briefly.

"There's a lot of verbal jousting going on out there."

The verbal jousting continued well into the night Monday after Zdeno Chara's slap shot from the right point with 1:53 left in the third period gave the Boston Bruins a 4-3 win over the Capitals and a 2-1 lead in the teams' best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal.

Caps coach Dale Hunter, who answers questions after losses as if a tow truck is about to put a hook onto his car, insisted that the match penalty against Nicklas Backstrom, for cross-checking the Bruins' Rich Peverly as time ran out, should not result in the automatic one-game suspension that usually comes with it.

"I think it'll be rescinded," Hunter said. "If you seen it, it wasn't bad."

But late Tuesday night, Backstrom's suspension was upheld. Exactly when a cross-check to the face, even from a player with Backstrom's reputation for clean play, "isn't that bad" is tough to say. Bias aside, Hunter might not be the best judge. As a player, he was famous for making plays that he apparently didn't think were "that bad," plays that earned him a reputation in every NHL city but Washington as one of the league's dirtiest players.

Some of his past rulings suggest that reputation matters to Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's czar of discipline. Bruins coach Claude Julien's view of the cross-check was — surprise — different from Hunter's. While Julien said he understood that physical play is "part of playoff hockey" (if every coach and player had to pay a dollar for each use of the phrase "playoff hockey," the national debt could be paid off by Friday), he expressed concern over the fact that three of his players have been cross-checked in the face in three games.

Memo from Julien to Shanahan: Uphold Backstrom's suspension so the Caps will learn to stop cross-checking people in the face. Response from Hunter: I need my best player to make this a long series.

This has the feel of a long series, one that is likely to get chippier as it goes along. That said, if you line up Bruins-Caps next to the mayhem that has broken out in some of the other first-round series in the Stanley Cup playoffs, this is peewee hockey with no hitting allowed.

Going into Monday night, 11 game misconducts had been handed out in five nights of play. That compares with six in the entire playoffs a year ago.

The Penguins-Flyers series has turned into WWE on skates, with Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux actually squaring off late in Game 3 on Sunday. Crosby and Giroux fighting is about as likely as Hunter guest-hosting on Letterman, a clear sign that the Penguins, stunningly down 3-0, have lost their minds.

That's what playoff hockey (pause here to kick another dollar into the national debt kitty) does to people.

Most series are like this one, with every goal feeling as if it is almost as important as an overtime winner. There were two of those, one for each team, in the first two games in Boston. There, tight checking and good goaltending produced a total of four goals in two games. Seven periods-plus of hockey and the puck went into the net four times.

That changed Monday. Both teams found more open ice. The Bruins finally got some people in front of Braden Holtby's net to make life a lot more difficult for him. Holtby looked human at times, although the winning goal was one of those hockey flukes: Chara's shot was redirected by defenseman Roman Hamrlik's skate past a stunned Holtby.

"They got a lucky goal," Hunter said. "It deflected off one of our guys."

That goal is the difference right now. Luck, as they say, is the residue of design, and the Bruins clearly had more "net-front presence," as Julien called it, on Monday than they had in the first two games.

The Caps had to be encouraged by the fact that Alex Ovechkin scored a goal early in the second period on a pretty play in which he controlled a rolling puck and beat Tim Thomas with a quick wrist shot. Backstrom, clearly back to his pre-concussion self, made the game's most artistic play, caroming a long pass off the boards to a streaking Laich to set up the goal that tied the game at 3 with six minutes left.

Still, Monday night's game was played more in the style the Bruins prefer than one the Caps are comfortable with. There were several post-whistle "rugby scrums," as Hunter called them, that led to penalties, most notably the one at the end of the game that put Backstrom's immediate future in doubt.

"When you see the same guys every night, it gets more intense," Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. "It's not like the regular season, where you don't see them for a while and you forget what's happened the last time you played them. When you see what's happening around the league, what happened in this game is easy to understand. Things get more tense more quickly. "

There will be plenty of tension in Verizon Center on Thursday night. The Caps need to stay away from silly penalties like the one Backstrom took at game's end. It doesn't matter whether Peverly got his stick between Ovechkin's legs — the game had been decided. Skate away in order to skate another day.

Shanahan has been unpredictable with his discipline since the start of the playoffs. He somehow let Nashville's Shea Weber off with only a fine after a vicious hit on Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg. The cries of dismay seem to have echoed in New York.

What the first three games of this series have clearly shown is that the Caps can play with the Bruins. Washington general manager George McPhee pointed out before the playoffs how thin the margin in the NHL is between a No. 1 seed and a No. 8 seed. One No. 1 seed, Vancouver, is on the verge of being swept.

The No. 2 seed in the East — the defending Cup champion Bruins — lead 2-1. They know, as do their opponents, that this series is probably a long way from being over.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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