NEW YORK -- When the Washington Capitals began the process of taking down the defending Stanley Cup champions in the opening round of this postseason, it was their core group of star players -- the ones who have been so maligned in previous playoffs -- who were playing well and leading the club.
In the early stages of that series with the Boston Bruins, the Capitals got key contributions from the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green while also neutralizing the top scorers in the other dressing room. The issue at the time was Boston's role players were outplaying Washington's, as guys like Chris Kelly, Benoit Pouliot and Rich Peverley kept the Bruins alive.
As the Boston series progressed, the "foot soldiers," as Washington coach Dale Hunter calls them, began to step to the fore. In the second round, they are starting to take over.
While Ovechkin scored the game-winning goal off a faceoff at the beginning of a power play during the third period Monday night, the 3-2 victory in Game 2 against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden was a sanguine example of how the grunts are now leading the line for the Capitals.
Washington's fourth line combined for one goal, while Matt Hendricks and Jason Chimera teamed up on another tally composed of hard work and hustle to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead. Jay Beagle, the team's checking-line center who has risen from obscurity to become one of Hunter's most trusted players, led all Washington forwards with nearly 20 minutes in ice time.
"You need them players. They play hard every night," Hunter said. "The press don't write about them a lot. They're the foot soldiers of the team. These guys come up and come playoff time, that is how you win games like tonight. It is a grind out there. They are shutting down the top guys, like Girardi out in the game with [Ovechkin], and you need these guys to come up. That's how you win games."
The four stars listed above -- Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green, the "Young Guns" as they've been known in Washington for the past five years -- all saw significant reductions in ice time for Game 2. Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin have never played less in a playoff game, and Green played about 10 minutes in the final two periods after a rough start in the first.
Instead, Hunter leaned heavily on his bottom two lines. Beagle centers Hendricks and Troy Brouwer on the third line, while the diminutive Keith Aucoin settles in between big bodies Joel Ward and Mike Knuble on the fourth.
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"Maybe two of the most underrated lines that are going," Brooks Laich said. "[Beagle's] line -- it's got to be just terrible to play against those guys. [Ward], [Knuble] and [Aucoin], they're a force every time they're on the ice. They don't complain about ice; they play the way they're told and they're very difficult to play against and they come up with big goals. Even with three minutes left, Mike Knuble chases that one down to avoid an icing. The contributions those guys are making can't be overlooked. They're driving the bus right now."
Ovechkin has two goals in the past five games, including one to force overtime in a loss and the winner Monday night. Green and Semin both have one each. Others have filled the void.
Chimera, who has bounced around the lineup and may currently skate on one of the top two lines but is really a grinder at heart, has three goals in the past four games. All three have happened in part because his world-class speed caused problems for the opposition. New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist underestimated how quickly Chimera could close on him after he strayed from his crease, and the result was Washington's second goal Monday.
Ovechkin has six points in this postseason, while Laich and Backstrom have five each. Chimera is tied for fourth on the team with Ward, who was the hero in Game 7 against Boston and set up Knuble's goal to give Washington the lead Monday. Knuble, who didn't dress for the first three games of this postseason, is one of four players who have three points. He has two goals in the past five games.
"We've been playing well," Knuble said of his line. "The biggest, first and foremost, we've been good defensively. We've been strong. We haven't been a thorn in their sides defensively and a hindrance to our team defense. I think we've been good, first of all, in that respect. And then at times when we haven't scored, we've been able to play in their end and kind of rag the puck around and make guys play in their own end. And I think that's your job. We're not going out there thinking we're going to score. And that's a huge bonus if you do. But our job is to tilt the ice, and I think we've been pretty clear about that."