WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals were a little shorthanded Thursday night without Nicklas Backstrom, but a couple of incredible individual efforts helped them even their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series with the Boston Bruins.
Alexander Semin provided the go-ahead power-play goal, and the burgeoning playoff legend of Braden Holtby grew as he stopped 44 shots in Washington's series-tying 2-1 victory in Game 4 at Verizon Center.
The series is now tied at two wins apiece as the scene shifts back to Boston for Game 5 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS) on Saturday, while Game 6 is here Sunday.
Holtby had 21 career NHL appearances before this postseason, but he has been outstanding for the Capitals in a matchup with Tim Thomas, winner of the 2011 Vezina and Conn Smythe trophies after leading these Bruins to the Stanley Cup. Holtby has now allowed seven goals in four games despite Boston decisively leading the possession battle -- particularly in Game 4.
"He just makes it very calm for the rest of us," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "If we give up a shot, we know [Holtby] is going to cover it, and if he does leave a rebound -- which I didn't see many tonight -- our guys are going to clear it. When you have a goaltender that is on top of his game, it really, really settles your team down. He was a leader for us tonight."
Added Marcus Johansson: "It is so fun to see, because he's such a great competitor. He gives everything he's got. I think it is fun to see everyone around is giving everything they've got too."
Boston dominated the first 30 minutes and held a 24-5 advantage in shots at one point, but Johnny Boychuk went to the box for hooking Troy Brouwer midway through the second period, and the Capitals seized momentum with a solid power play that featured several great chances.
Boston took another penalty later in the second period when Patrice Bergeron knocked Laich's stick from his hand, and Semin put Washington in front to stay. He collected the puck below the goal line to the left of Boston's net, switched positions with Keith Aucoin and then wristed a missile from the left circle into the top-right corner of the net at 18:43 of the second period.
It was Semin's second power-play goal of the series -- no one else on either team has one.
"I don't know," Laich said when asked how many players can make that shot. "I'm just glad we have one that can."
The Bruins missed a chance to sweep the two games at Verizon Center and return home with a chance to finish off the Capitals. They spent the majority of the game at Washington's end of the ice, but like the first two games in this series were unable to penetrate Washington's compact defense and proved vulnerable on the counterattack.
Boston finished with 45 shots on goal, but had none in the final 7:13 of the third period. Washington blocked 26 shots, including four in that final 7:13 and two in the last 10 seconds. Holtby called Jay Beagle's last-second block on Boychuk's point shot with everyone scrambling in front of the net the play of the game.
The outcome left Boston coach Claude Julien frustrated.
"At the end of the night the results weren't the ones we wanted," Julien said. "When you shoot 45 shots on net, you would expect your team to get more than one goal so there's obviously some areas that we're not happy with."
While the Bruins were firing shots from all angles, Holtby and the Capitals' defense combined forces to keep Boston from getting many second chances. Tyler Seguin had one great rebound opportunity in the second period, but otherwise the Bruins were mostly one-and-done.
"It's big," Holtby said of his rebound control. "I think that was one of their goals today. They threw a lot off the wing to my far pad and far blocker, even some creative ones. The one guy just kind of floated one to my blocker. I had nowhere to put it but in a guy's body. That's an NHL play. My job is to deal with those rebounds and today I thought I did a good job."
Johansson put Washington in front on the first shot of the game just 82 seconds after the opening faceoff. Alex Ovechkin hit Boston's Zdeno Chara at the left point, then collided with Andrew Ference at the right point, and the Capitals ended up with a 2-on-1 against forward Brian Rolston because both defensemen were caught out of position. Laich patiently waited before feeding Johansson for his first goal of the series.
Laich now has seven points in his past six games, the most on the team. Just before the first game in that stretch, he caused a bit of a stir by guaranteeing the Capitals would make the playoffs before a game against the Florida Panthers that was essentially a must-win.
"[Ovechkin] hit Chara and that helped get Brooks the puck. I think their D was a little bit on his heels and Brooks made a great play," Johansson said. "I just tried to get it in the net. ... I just closed my eyes and shot."
Rich Peverley evened the score at 13:12 of the period. Ovechkin slipped with the puck in the offensive zone and defenseman Dennis Wideman got caught sliding down from the point, so the Bruins went the other way on a 3-on-1. Peverley waited for Holtby to commit to guarding the near post and slipped a shot through his legs as he slid over.
"That first goal, like [assistant goaltender coach Olaf Kolzig] was saying, that's one I know I can have, I know I can stop," Holtby said. "My goal going into the second period, especially after that goal, was to make sure I'm giving myself the right chance to make saves and to be more patient. I wasn't patient on that first goal. That's one of the things I've just learned over the years is realize what you did wrong and try to fix it and you're done with it. You're moving on."
Boston finished the opening period with a 14-3 advantage in shots and continued to pressure the Capitals in the first half of the second period. Most of the final 20 minutes were spent at Holtby's end of the ice. Still, the rookie goaltender didn't waver, and Washington turned this best-of-seven marathon into a best-of-three sprint despite missing its top center.
"We had some chances but ... it's not good enough," Bergeron said. "We need to make sure we find ways to create some havoc there but also find the rebounds. I think we're there, we're around the net area. It's not that we're not going, it's more than we don't find the loose pucks."