WASHINGTON — The first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs concluded Wednesday night with the Boston Bruins hosting the Toronto Maple in a terrific Game 7 at TD Garden.
The game was played exactly six years to the day after the Bruins hosted the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The Capitals won in overtime, with Joel Ward netting the OT winner at 2:56 of the extra session. It ranks among the most memorable goals in franchise history.
Relive the goal that capped off a classic first-round series with the book excerpt below from 100 Things Capitals Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die.
“THE KING IS DEAD”
Joel Ward seemingly became a star overnight in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. A 30-year-old third-liner with the Nashville Predators at the time, Ward broke out with seven goals and 13 points in 12 games to lead Nashville to the second round for the first time in team history.
It was the type of playoff performance that caught the eye of Capitals general manager George McPhee, who’s club was coming off its fourth consecutive Southeast Division title, but another premature postseason exit.
Weeks after Ward’s breakthrough, the Capitals signed the free agent to a four-year $12 million deal. According to McPhee, the Capitals were one of 16 teams trying to acquire him. Not bad for a guy who years earlier, was playing professional roller hockey in Florida and didn’t land a fulltime gig in the NHL until he was 27.
Despite a shaky first year with the Capitals in 2011-12, complete with a 35-game scoreless drought and a late-season stint as a healthy scratch, Ward ultimately delivered that spring.
The opportunity to do so wasn’t guaranteed, as the Capitals didn’t secure a playoff berth until their penultimate game of the regular season.
For the first time in the Alex Ovechkin era, the Capitals entered the playoffs as the underdogs, seeded seventh in the Eastern Conference and facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
Injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth forced Washington to turn to their third-string goaltender, rookie Braden Holtby, who had 14 wins in 21 career NHL games. Holtby would be opposed by the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner in Tim Thomas who had 16 wins in 25 games the previous postseason alone.
Holtby and the Capitals were up to the challenge, though, and the series proved to be a classic. The Capitals and Bruins split the first six games, three of which went to overtime. Bruins rookie Tyler Seguin scored in overtime in Game 6 at Verizon Center, setting the stage for a winner-take-all Game 7 at Boston’s TD Garden on April 25, 2012.
“Boston is a hard place to play and there was a little bit of intimidation going into that,” defenseman Karl Alzner recalled five years later. “But it all went back to us wanting to spoil their fun. We wanted to beat them, we wanted to beat the champs, we wanted to beat their fans, we wanted to do it in their building and we wanted to pound them into the ground while we did it.”
“It was a heck of a ride,” said Alzner’s defensive partner John Carlson. “We needed to have a pretty good push at the end of the year just to get into the playoffs. Going into that series for me, being born up there and having family that are huge Bruins fans, it meant a lot to me personally, too. We played great that series against the defending champs and Game 7 was a big moment for us.”
Ward, who was still seeking his first goal of the series, was preparing for his first career Game 7 that afternoon, when he received a text message from his friend and mentor, former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes.
“He just told me to visualize,” Ward said. “I took those words from a guy I’ve looked up to for many years. It’s my first Game 7 experience so I figured I’d listen to someone whose been through it before.”
The cliché suggests that all kids who grow up on a backyard rink or playing street hockey have pictured themselves in a starring role in Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In 2012, a grown man in Ward was doing the same on his way to the rink late that afternoon.
“He told me to do my thing along the boards and go hard to the net. I took it to heart. I tried to visualize as best I could.”
Game 7 was another tightly-contested, low-scoring affair with veteran Matt Hendricks opening the scoring for the Capitals in the first and the teenager Seguin answering for Boston in the second. For the fourth time in the series, though, 60 minutes of hockey would not suffice. Overtime would settle the best-of-seven series- the first in NHL history to go the distance with all seven games decided by one goal.
“I was excited for Game 7,” said Dale Hunter, the former Capitals captain, who replaced Bruce Boudreau as head coach during the 2011-12 season. “There’s nothing better. And I told them [after the third period] there’s only one thing better than a Game 7. A Game 7 going to overtime, so have fun with it.”
Hunter typically didn’t say much to the team between periods, leaving the room primarily to veterans like Hendricks, Mike Knuble, Jason Chimera and Dennis Wideman. But in a seventh game heading to sudden death, Hunter reminded his players to enjoy the moment.
“He was the best I had ever seen at handling the momentum swings and the intensity of a hockey game,” recalled Brooks Laich. “You could tell he was a former player that loved it. The tighter and grittier the game got, the more intense but calm he got. He was fine. He was like, ‘Yeah! This is hockey! Tie game, Game 7, this is why you play and you have to love it to be here!’”
If anybody knew about the pressure, and the potential euphoria of a Game 7 overtime it was Hunter. Back in Game 7 of the 1988 Patrick Division semifinals, Hunter beat Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ron Hextall in overtime for one of the biggest goals in franchise history.
Twenty-four years later, Ward would join Hunter as Washington’s Game 7 overtime heroes. Ward followed the advice he received from Weekes and went hard to the net. It was a blue-collar type of goal in what had been a workmanlike series.
As the first overtime approached the three-minute mark, Bruins forward Benoit Pouliot looked to dump the puck deep into the Capitals’ zone to allow for a Boston line change. Pouliot slapped the puck from the neutral zone, but it ricocheted off Knuble just inside the Washington blue line, suddenly providing the Capitals with a chance in transition as Boston changed personnel.
“[Pouliot] was trying to dump it in hard and I was just coming through the pile,” Knuble said. “I was heading towards him and it hit me right square in the knees and it kicked out to center ice. We caught everybody in a change, they were assuming the puck was going in and all of a sudden, it’s a hard rebound going the other way. And then you come out of the pile and you can’t believe that this is where you are on the ice right now, with a two-on-one.”
“When it happened, it was a freak play,” Ward said. “We were thinking about coming off for a line change at first until he blocked that dump in and we got on our horse, knowing that he was going up the ice. I figured at that stage of the game nobody was going to try to pass it across through a defenseman, so I just tried to trail behind him. I knew he was going to take it to the net.”
Knuble broke through the neutral zone and had a clear lane towards Thomas.
“I was carrying that thing right to the crease,” he said. “I was going to jam it in one way or another, but Joel was smart- he didn’t swing by the net, he was able to pick up the trash.”
Knuble’s backhand attempt was stopped by Thomas, but Ward followed on the rebound and beat Thomas with a backhand of his own for the biggest goal of his career.
“I was just trying to hide in the weeds and look for a loose puck,” he recalled. “When I saw the puck sitting there, I just took a whack at it, and it goes in and it was one of the coolest feelings I had ever had. Just the year that we had, battling and being in and out of the lineup, for it to happen then, it was pretty cool. I don’t know too many of those I’ve had in my lifetime, scoring in Game 7 in overtime.”
Play-by-play voice John Walton was in his first season in the NHL and had the call on the Capitals Radio Network:
“The Boston Bruins now turn it over. A two-on-one. Knuble coming with Ward. Knuble with a chance, backhander loose, they score! They score! They score! It’s over! Ward on the rebound! Good morning, good afternoon and good night Boston! The King is dead! There will be a new Stanley Cup champion! The Capitals are still dancing! A rebound off Thomas, and the Capitals have won it in Boston, in Game 7.”
As the Capitals emptied the bench and piled on Ward along the boards in the Boston zone, Hendricks went the opposite direction and was the first to embrace Holtby as he approached center ice. Chimera and Roman Hamrlik soon joined them for celebratory hugs and high fives.
Hunter predicted that Washington’s “foot soldiers” would emerge as difference makers in Game 7 and that proved prophetic as bottom-six forwards Hendricks and Ward accounted for the goal scoring. Knuble, who started the play on the winning goal, had been a healthy scratch for the first three games of the series.
“That goal symbolized that whole series,” Hendricks said of the overtime winner. “There wasn’t anything cute or pretty about that series. It was rough and tough, there were a lot of bruises and beat-up bodies in that seven-game series and that goal was the perfect way to put a stamp on it and move on to the next round. It was great. It was great for Wardo and Knubs, both were tremendous players for us and tremendous people in our room and their ice time had been cut down quite a bit that season as well and for them to get that opportunity and finish that goal in Game 7 was a great feeling.”
For Ward, the goal also provided some vindication after signing his free agent deal, but underperforming during the regular season.
“It was huge,” he said. “For me personally, I thought I may have lost a little bit of respect from my own teammates just being on the outside so much and I definitely do play for the respect of them. Once you gain the respect from everybody, things seem to go a lot more smoothly. But when you’re on the outside a little bit, it’s definitely tough. So, for us to get back in the lineup and keep working, we were excited just to be part of it. Listening to Knubs on the bench, it’s all about embracing it, staying even keel and staying in the moment and it worked out for us.”