April 26, 2012

B's missed chances gave Ward opportunity to be the hero

By Andrew Merritt

Patrice Bergeron just missed burying the game-winner early in overtime. (Dave Arnold Photography)

BOSTON – Mike Knuble wasn’t going to give Joel Ward the puck.

That was the thought in the former Bruin winger’s head, he said, as he stormed down the ice, taking the puck with him after a Benoit Pouliot dump-in shot rattled off Nicklas Backstrom’s stick and out into the neutral zone. Ward, who until late Wednesday night had no goals in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, was along for the ride, shadowing Knuble on the right wing in case the grizzled veteran wanted to slide the puck over.

But that wasn’t in the plans for Knuble.

“To be honest, I was like, ‘Joel’s not getting the puck, I’ve got room to go, I’m going to skate this one right in,’” he said.

Knuble stuck to that plan. Ward still got the puck. Knuble curled in on the backhand, but Tim Thomas kept the Bruins alive for one more second. Then Ward picked up the rebound and swept it in, scoring the 10th playoff goal of his career, and second playoff game-winner.

“To Joel’s credit, he stopped, it’s the kind of play where it’d be easy to get lost and swing by the net, but he stopped and came across and finished it,” Knuble said.

Ward, whose answers to reporters after the game were of a mile-a-minute variety befitting his seldom-publicized role as a fourth-liner, couldn’t come up with much for one question: How did it feel to score the winning goal in a Game 7 to eliminate the Stanley Cup champions?

“Really?” was the exasperated winger’s response, as if to say, “how could I possibly describe that feeling?”

The playoffs make heroes of the overlooked. Wednesday night, it was Ward’s turn in the spotlight, but only after 62 minutes and 57 seconds of hockey. In fact, this series needed seven hours, 30 minutes and 28 seconds – seven games, four with overtime, including double OT in Game 2 – before it had a winner. And yet it was a very short period of time – about five and a half minutes – that made all the difference.

It started with a holding call on Jason Chimera, who may have been trying to steady himself when he put both arms around Johnny Boychuk as the beefy Caps forward and equally strong Bruin defenseman raced for a puck in the Bruin end with just under two and a half minutes to go in regulation.

While it’s not unprecedented for a penalty to be called so late in a tied Game 7, it was a bit of a bonus for the Bruins, especially in a game officiated by Stephen Walkom, who oversaw the famously penalty-free Game 7 between Boston and Tampa Bay in last year’s Eastern Conference final (though it was Walkom’s partner, Eric Furlatt, who raised the arm).

Washington won the ensuing faceoff in its defensive zone, and eventually cleared. The Bruins won the next draw, but lost the puck on an unforced error. Brooks Laich blocked a Johnny Boychuck shot and cleared with 50 seconds to go in the period, 24 in the power play. Brian Rolston took the puck up ice, untouched, and managed to get as far as the Stanley Cup Playoffs logo painted just inside the Caps’ blue line before he fired the Bruins’ only shot on net during the man advantage, one easily padded away by goaltender Braden Holtby.

Marcus Johansson gained possession after Rolston’s follow attempt went wide, and cleared it to kill the final seconds of Chimera’s penalty. For the third time Wednesday night, and the 21st time in the series, the Bruins went scoreless on the power play.

“When you talk about tonight, that’s probably the most frustrating part of our game, was that power play that could have ended the series and the game,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said.

The Capitals knew they’d dodged a bullet, though the goaltender insisted it wasn’t luck.

“I think that applies to our preparation with our PK, they didn’t gain entry,” Holtby said. “The only shot they got, I thought, was Rolston when he went down the middle. That was a great PK, huge PK.”

Regulation time ended. Some 15 minutes later, overtime began. Thirty seconds in, the Bruins had an even better chance to advance to the next round, when a Dennis Seidenberg blast went off Holtby’s stick and trickled into the wheelhouse of Patrice Bergeron. But the Bruin center, clearly not at 100 percent health after missing large chunks of Game 6, was a split second late, and the puck went wide off the inside of his stick blade.

“Yeah, Bergeron, I think he fanned on that a little bit,” Knuble said. “You’re just holding your breath every time they have it in your zone. I know something’s wrong with his arm there or something, so maybe that affected him a little bit. We caught a huge break.”

Keith Aucoin (Waltham, Mass.), who played with and befriended Bergeron in Providence during the 2004-05 lockout, saw it in high-definition from his seat on the bench.

“You could see on the big screen, it was pretty close. Bergy doesn’t miss those very often.”

Karl Alzner had an even better view, but it was one he didn’t really want, since it was his job to cover Bergeron on the play.

“Yeah, it was shocking, I didn’t expect a puck to bounce out like that,” the Washington defenseman said. “It was kind of like, ‘oh crap.’ Not only do you not want to be the guy who your guy scores the winning goal, but on the first shift is even worse.

“We kind of snapped out of it after that,” he said.

Indeed, the Capitals looked like the better team after they survived Bergeron’s near-clincher, hoarding almost all of the possession until Pouliot found Backstrom’s stick, Knuble broke away, and Ward pounced on the rebound to end the Bruins’ season.

After the game, Ward sat before more reporters than he’s likely ever seen in front of his locker stall. While he was listening to a question, Knuble stepped in with a gift.

On his overtime rush, Knuble had no intention of passing to Ward. Now, in a happy visitors’ locker room, he had a different plan, and handed the game puck to the Capitals’ newest hero.

Andy Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @A_Merritt.