As George McPhee waited Thursday night to find out who his Washington Capitals would face in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the general manager reflected on "NHL Hour with Commissioner Gary Bettman" on a thrilling Game 7 overtime win over the Boston Bruins less than 24 hours earlier.
"I wasn't sure how our team was going to perform in this series," McPhee said. "And we got out there and I felt after the first two games, you know what, we're right there with this team. The guys who didn't really have great years for us in the regular season really were different players in this series. We had a lot of players -- I was really pleased to see it -- elevated their games so much from the regular season to the playoffs. The first couple of games in Boston I said, 'gee, if we can keep this up -- because I hadn't seen this most of the season -- but if we can keep this up, we're going to be in good shape.'"
McPhee's premonition proved to be correct, as the Capitals prevailed in what went down as the closest seven-game series in postseason history -- each game was decided by a single goal. The first two games and the final two games were decided in overtime, with Joel Ward's goal off a Mike Knuble rebound moving Washington into the conference semifinals.
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"The margin between winning and losing, and happiness and misery, it's just so razor thin," McPhee said. "And you really fear the one good or bad break, the one missed assignment, it means everything now. I've never experienced a series so tight. I was OK going into the series -- the last two or three weeks of the regular season were really in some ways more difficult, trying to make the playoffs. And then when you get into the playoffs you say, well, you can still lose three games and win a series. That's kind of neat.
"But I don't know how we did this. I certainly have a lot of respect for the Boston Bruins. Usually at the end of a series you have a genuine dislike for your opponent, but I think in relation to the Bruins we have more respect now than we ever have had for them. They built a heck of a team, a team that we admire. We like the way they play. Their players could not have been more dignified, sportsmanlike at the end of the game, at the end of the series, during the handshakes. And [GM] Peter Chiarelli, [coach] Claude Julien, [team president] Cam Neely could not have been more gracious. There was no complaining, no whining during the series. There's a reason they won a Cup last year and it's because they have big-time character.
"We found ourselves in a good series with them and were able to hang in there with them, and we hung around until overtime in Game 7 and then anybody can win it and we caught a break."
McPhee was asked about the notion the Capitals beat the Bruins at their own game.
"I thought we sort of emulated the way that they played," he said. "They don't change. They have a way that works for them and they won a Stanley Cup and I guess we're all copycats, we're doing the same thing they did. I don't know if we did it better than them -- if [Patrice] Bergeron puts the puck in the net a minute into overtime, then we didn't do it better than them. They won the series. It was that close."
While the series will be remembered for the overtime goal by Ward and one by Nicklas Backstrom in double overtime of Game 2, as well as the team-leading five points accumulated by Alex Ovechkin, it's hard to argue there was a bigger star for Washington than rookie goaltender Braden Holtby, who finished with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage after entering the playoffs with just 21 games of NHL experience.
"We've had to do it the last few years," McPhee said, noting that all of the Capitals' playoff victories over the past several years have been achieved by rookies such as Holtby, Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. "The good news is we've drafted well in that area. The good and bad news is that we've been playing a lot of young goalies. I certainly didn't anticipate losing our top two goaltenders [Tomas Vokoun and Neuvirth].
"We're delighted with the way Braden Holtby's played. He's a very mature kid. We were prepared to start the year with him and Neuvirth. We thought they were both ready. But then the opportunity to acquire Tomas Vokoun on a one-year deal presented itself this summer at reasonable money, so we thought it wouldn't hurt to have a veteran goaltender here and give Braden more time to develop. Unfortunately, Tomas got hurt and Braden did get lots of development time in Hershey and it sure paid off in this series."
The Capitals, who won three of the four games played at TD Garden in Boston, will start the second round on the road -- in New York, Philadelphia or New Jersey, depending on how the two Game 7s taking place Thursday night played out. McPhee will be back to watching and worrying soon enough, but after Wednesday's victory he was finally able to just relax.
"I actually got a decent night's sleep last night," he said. "But my 6-year-old was crawling on me at 6:30 in the morning asking me if the Caps won or not, and then my wife was barking at me to get the garbage out before 7, so they bring you down to earth in a hurry and keep you humble."