Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom Combo Gives Dale Hunter Options, Could Give Bruins Headaches

Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom Combo Gives Dale Hunter Options, Could Give Bruins HeadachesEditor’s note: The Washington Post and NESN.com are teaming up for an NHL playoffs edition of Across Enemy Lines. Doug Flynn answered the Post’s Bruins questions, and Tarik El-Bashir answered our Capitals questions. Below are Tarik’s answers. 

Playoff hockey is back, and it returns to TD Garden in Boston on Thursday night as the Bruins continue their Stanley Cup defense against the Washington Capitals.

The Caps come into Boston in an unfamiliar position. The No. 7 club in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals are used to being a high seed when the playoffs start. They’re also used to disappointing, early bow-outs in the playoffs. Now, they’re on the opposite side hoping to get a first-round upset against the B’s.

The Washington Post’s Tarik El-Bashir took some time to answer some questions on the upcoming series. Here’s what he had to say.

NESN.com: What is the status of the Washington netminders? Will either Tomas Vokoun or Michal Neuvirth be ready to play in this series? If not, is the youngster Braden Holtby ready to meet the challenge of taking the reins in the playoffs?

El-Bashir: Based on Tuesday’s practice, it looks as though rookie Braden Holtby will indeed get his first taste of the NHL playoffs Thursday at TD Garden. Veteran Tomas Vokoun (groin muscle pull) skated on his own for about 20 minutes before practice but is not yet ready to face shots. Michal Neuvirth (lower body) participated in practice but did not appear to be 100 percent. Neuvirth said he expects to be available at some point during the first-round series.

NESN.com: Bruins coach Claude Julien stated on Monday that he felt the Capitals have taken on “a whole different personality” under Dale Hunter. Do you feel Hunter has put his stamp on this team, and could his style and system be better suited for the postseason than Bruce Boudreau’s approach?

El-Bashir: Julien is mostly correct; the Caps are certainly a different team since Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28. But I’m not sure they’re a spitting image of Hunter, the player. He played on the edge, borderline dirty. The Caps, though, play a trapping style under Hunter, the coach — content to sit back, prey on their opponent’s miscues and grind out low-scoring games.

When Boudreau was behind the bench, it seemed Alex Ovechkin and Co. struggled to adapt their high-flying style to the postseason’s tighter-checking brand. Making the switch shouldn’t be an issue under Hunter since they’ve been playing close games for four months.

NESN.com: The Capitals have struggled as high seeds in recent postseasons, getting eliminated early in each of the last four years despite lofty expectations. Now, they are the seventh seed and an underdog. Could this role against the reigning Stanley Cup champs be seen as a positive and reduce the pressure for Washington?

El-Bashir: There’s no question the Caps were “tight” the past two postseasons. The pressure was palpable. As soon as Game 1 rolled around, Boudreau, usually an affable man, suddenly turned serious. Their young stars, normally upbeat and loose, started to look burdened.

So the hope around Washington these days is that being the underdog will have the opposite effect since little is expected –- at least from those outside of the organization.

NESN.com: After three games without a point upon his return from a concussion, Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and an assist in the Capitals’ regular-season finale against the Rangers. How close is he to his pre-injury form, and what kind of an impact do you expect him to have on this series?

El-Bashir: After missing 40 games with a concussion, it was to be expected that Backstrom would need a few games to get back his timing and conditioning. It took four games, to be exact. In Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Rangers, Backstrom looked like the player he was before suffering the injury.

Getting Backstrom back is critical for a top-six group of forwards that isn’t really as deep as you might think. It gives Hunter the option of putting his two most dangerous players –- Backstrom and Ovechkin -– on different lines, a tactic that forces opposing coaches to choose which line to match his shutdown defensemen/checking line against.  

As of Tuesday’s practice, Backstrom and Ovechkin were on different lines.

NESN.com: Alex Ovechkin finished the season strong with 12-4-16 totals in his final 16 games. Has his game returned to the elite level he displayed earlier in his career, and how do you expect him to handle the heavy dose of the Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg defensive pairing opposite his line?

El-Bashir: Ovechkin has been a force since mid-March. Although it’s not clear what exactly spurred the recent resurgence, the Caps are happy to have “Old Ovi” back. When he’s on, the Caps are on. In fact, they’re 21-5-4 this season when he scores.

NESN.com: Adam McQuaid remains out from the injuries he suffered on the hit by Jason Chimera in the last meeting between the clubs in the regular season. After that game, in a refreshing twist from what has become commonplace in today’s NHL, the Bruins did not advocate for further discipline against Chimera. Do you expect that incident to have any carryover into this series or perhaps help set the stage for an especially physical series?

El-Bashir: I do expect a physical series. I expect the Bruins to attempt to pound the will to win out of the Caps. But I don’t expect any repercussions from Chimera’s hit on McQuaid — and rightfully so. Chimera plays with a chip on his shoulder, but he wasn’t trying to hurt McQuaid. He went for a big hit, McQuaid turned at the last second and, unfortunately, a player got hurt.

NESN.com: While the Capitals have plenty of star power with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Co., playoff series are often determined by the play of less heralded players stepping up to become unexpected key contributors. Who on the Capitals outside of the usual cast of characters do you feel could be a surprise X factor in this series?

El-Bashir: I’m going with pint-sized center Mathieu Perreault, who can play almost anywhere in the lineup. The 24-year-old scored a career-high 16 goals in only 64 games. Perreault, who was skating on the fourth line Tuesday, also seemed to have a knack for producing against the Bruins, tallying a hat trick in a 5-3 victory on Jan. 24. He also had the primary assist on the Caps’ only goal in a 4-1 loss to Boston on Feb. In the final eight regular-season games, Perreault had three goals and three assists.

Thanks again to the Washington Post’s Tarik El-Bashir. You can follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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