BOSTON -- Before Wednesday night, Dale Hunter had the lone Game 7 overtime goal in Washington Capitals franchise history.
The Caps now have two Game 7 OT wins, and Hunter has been a part of both.
Joel Ward scored on a rebound 2:57 into overtime to give Washington a 2-1 victory and propel the Capitals past the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in Game 7 of this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
"When it comes playoff time you never know who is going to score goals and the guys that are good guys, character guys – I think [Mike Knuble] blocked a shot and took off and [Ward] went with him and they got rewarded for it," said Hunter, who took over as coach when Bruce Boudreau was let go in late November. "They had a good game going the whole game. I think we were playing very well. ... To come in here and to beat Boston, Stanley Cup champions, great team over there, we know what they’re all about, their character over there. And it took everything we had. We have great character guys, too. That’s why it came down to seven games, one goal. That’s unheard of."
Added captain Alex Ovechkin: "The feeling is great. You know, it was a tough series. They played well but great for us. We kept fighting ... right now I cannot say what I’m feeling right now, you know, I’m nervous and I’m pretty happy."
In the first postseason series in NHL history to have all seven games decided by one goal, the seventh-seeded Capitals knocked out the defending champs in a tight-checking, grind-it-out affair that typified the razor-thin difference between the two teams.
Dennis Seidenberg, arguably Boston’s best player during this series, tried to fire the puck into the Washington zone near the right wall, but it deflected off Mike Knuble. The 39-year-old forward, who was a healthy scratch for the first three games, chased down the puck and barreled in on goaltender Tim Thomas. Knuble’s backhand shot bounced off Thomas, but Ward got position on defenseman Greg Zanon and shoveled the rebound into the net for his first goal of the postseason.
Ward was a playoff hero for Nashville last spring -- and that earned him a four-year, $12 million contract with the Capitals. But both Ward and Knuble struggled to meet expectations this season, falling in out of the lineup and being restricted mostly to third- or fourth-line minutes. They came through when the Capitals needed it most.
"I went for a change and [Knuble] made a big block there and I assumed we had a little bit of a break up ice so try and take a chance," Ward said. "I knew he was going to take it to the rack and I just tried to follow it up as best I could. You know, I just saw the puck laying there and I just took a whack at it and it went in."
Added Knuble: "It hit me right in the shins. I knew they were going for a change. Ward wasn’t going to get the pass. I was going right to the crease with that one. I’m glad he added the finish there at the end."
The Capitals won a Game 7 for only the third time in franchise history, and the second in five tries during the past five postseasons. Hunter scored the OT winner against Philadelphia in 1988, and Sergei Fedorov had a goal late in the third period against the New York Rangers to win their opening-round series in 2009.
This is only the third time Washington has advanced to the second round since reaching its lone Stanley Cup Final in 1998.
Boston is the second straight defending champion to be knocked out in the first round of the playoffs; Chicago was eliminated by Vancouver last season. The Bruins won three Game 7s en route to the Cup in 2011, and Thomas allowed only three goals in those games. There has not been a repeat champion in the NHL since the Detroit Red Wings swept the Flyers in 1997 and the Capitals in 1998.
Washington will find out its second-round opponent Thursday night. If the Rangers defeat the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS ), the Capitals will head for New York this weekend. If the Senators win, the Capitals could face the Flyers or the New Jersey Devils, depending on the outcome of New Jersey’s Game 7 against the Florida Panthers on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET; NHL Network-US, TSN, RDSI).
For now, they have a chance to enjoy what they've accomplished rather than worry about their next opponent.
"[I’m] just excited," forward Brooks Laich said. "You’re excited you’re moving on. It’s our dream to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and play for the Cup. There’s been some frustration here in the past and to move on, to beat a good team and to move on, we’re excited."
Boston had plenty of chances but could not take advantage of 22-year-old rookie goaltender Braden Holtby, who made 31 saves to outduel Thomas, the reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
The Bruins had the first great chance in the overtime, but Patrice Bergeron’s shot from the left of an open net went wide. Boston also had a power play with 2:26 remaining in regulation but failed to convert. They finished the series 2-for-23 on the power play, the second-worst percentage (8.7 percent) among the 16 teams in the first round.
"It is hard to swallow, tough to understand right now," said Bergeron, who was injured in Game 5 but played through it in the final two contests despite not being able to take faceoffs. "I think obviously it’s going to take us a couple of days to sink that one in. We obviously weren’t ready for being done right now."
There was only one major mistake in the opening period, and the Capitals took advantage of it. Boston’s Milan Lucic started to skate with the puck along the left wall in his own zone but lost it. Jason Chimera grabbed the puck and sent it to John Carlson at the right point; Carlson's shot was deflected by Matt Hendricks past Thomas at 11:23 to give Washington the lone goal of a conservatively played first period.
Boston had 11 shots in the period, but only Rich Peverley’s one-timer on a pass from behind the Washington net by Brad Marchand was a quality chance.
The Bruins controlled the play for most of the second period, and the scoring chances started to pile up before Tyler Seguin, who scored the OT winner in Game 6, tied the game with 5:33 left in the period.
Washington had several chances to get the puck out of its zone during a long shift, but the Bruins applied heavy pressure and forced turnovers. Andrew Ference sent a shot from the top of the zone that deflected off Holtby. Johnny Boychuk sent it right back at him from the right side, and it trickled through the goaltender into the blue paint, where Seguin shoved it into a wide-open net.
Boston clearly had the momentum at that point and continued to push for a go-ahead goal, but Holtby and the Washington fortress in front of him held.
"It is my first ever [playoff series win] in my career and it feels good to be in the celebration instead of watching it, that’s for sure," Holtby said.
The feeling in the dressing room down the hallway at TD Garden was predictably different.
"I’d have to say I’m probably in shock," Thomas said. "I really believed that we were going to win tonight. I thought that, I really had a deep feeling that this wasn’t the end of the road for us."