The Boston Bruins had the Washington Capitals beat by a long shot in the size and physicality departments entering Thursday's Game 4, and after Game 3's decision to go with a standard lineup went awry, Capitals coach Dale Hunter decided to fix things. He insrted Mike Knuble in the hole caused by Nicklas Backstrom's suspension, and he gave John Erskine a spot on the blueline in place of Jeff Schultz.
In Game 3, the Caps chose to play Boston's style, using agitation and confrontation to get in their opponent's heads. It ended up failing miserably, as the Bruins fed off Washington's attempts en route to the win. It also cost the Caps' arguably their top offensive player in Backstrom, thanks to a match penalty that the league did not rescind.
While Washington's failed attempt to play agitator weren't the only reason the Caps lost Game 3, it was a major factor in feeding the Bruins' momentum. So the Caps realized they would need to play the physical game with a bit more intelligence in Game 4. It paid off in Washington's tight-checking 2-1 victory, which evened the series at 2-2.
Erskine hadn't played since Feb. 12, and he openly told the media that he wasn't on speaking terms with his head coach, but his physical, stay-at-home presence was vital for Washington. He also is one who knows how to play the "don't-mess-with-my-team" game better than most players on the Caps and can deliver a clean, message-sending hit when needed. He can keep his aggression under control.
More importantly, though, Knuble was in the lineup on a line with Joel Ward and Keith Aucoin. A much grittier fourth line like this was able to match well with Boston, and adding in Aucoin's positive faceoff results gave Washington better possession numbers with their bottom unit on the ice.
Although both vets received limited time -- no more than almost 12 minutes -- both players put their expertise to work in Game 4, and it certainly helped the Caps to victory.
Coincidence? Working extra hard because Backstrom was out the lineup? Maybe. Yet, it's hard to ignore the benefits that both players' game brought against a tenacious physical team like Boston. The Capitals still played a physical style and Boston still dictated the pace of the game, but somehow Washington did so and only took one penalty the entire game. That can be chalked up to veteran experience, and Hunter's decision to insert Knuble and Erskine into the Game 4 lineup paid off.