Bruins Mailbag: Zdeno Chara, Bruins Defense Will Play Key Role In Series Against Capitals

Bruins Mailbag: Zdeno Chara, Bruins Defense Will Play Key Role In Series Against CapitalsThe playoffs have finally arrived, but not even the Stanley Cup playoffs can stop the mail delivery.

With the real season now getting under way with the Bruins opening their title defense against the Capitals, there are plenty of questions surrounding the club’s quest to be the first team to repeat since Detroit in 1998, and I've tried to address as many as possible in the latest edition of the Bruins Mailbag.

As always, I'd like to thank all the readers who sent in questions and apologize in advance if I wasn't able to get to yours. Please keep submitting your questions and I'll answer as many of them as I can as we continue on through the postseason.

Who do [the Bruins] plan to have cover, or how do they plan to handle [Alex] Ovechkin?
– Louis Grant, Regina, Saskatchewan

Ovechkin is sure to get a heavy dose of Zdeno Chara throughout this series, just as he has always had when facing the Bruins. Watching those two stars go head-to-head is sure to be one of the most entertaining games within the game in this matchup. It can't just be a one-on-one battle though. The Bruins' defensive system relies on a team concept involving all five skaters on the ice.

Chara will need help from defense partner Dennis Seidenberg and the forwards up front. The Bruins will likely have Patrice Bergeron's line out opposite Ovechkin as much as possible, and the Selke Trophy candidate will have a big role in trying to contain Washington's top line as well. No plan is full-proof though. Despite Washington's struggles in the playoffs in recent years, Ovechkin does have 25-25-50 totals in 37 career postseason games, and also has 29 points in 27 regular-season games against the Bruins.

The Bruins have the home-ice advantage, so they will be able to get the matchups they want in the games in Boston. They may have to work a little harder to get Chara and Bergeron out opposite Ovechkin in D.C. Of course, if all else fails, Ovechkin will still have to get the puck past reigning ConnSmythe winner Tim Thomas.

Will Tom Poti be back?
– Dave, Worcester

It would have been an interesting storyline for the series if the Worcester native and Boston University product had been able to play against his hometown team. Unfortunately, the Capitals defenseman's days in the NHL may be over due to a chronic groin problem. He has been on long-term injured reserve all season, last playing last season on Jan. 12, 2011. He missed the final 38 games of last year and this entire season. He is signed through the 2012-13 season with an annual cap hit of $2.85 million, so it is unlikely any official retirement will come until that contract is completed. 

How bad is the "upper body" injury to [Adam] McQuaid? What are the chances we see him the first round? Will the B's keep [Joe] Corvo on short leash?
– Jon, Natick

The Bruins are being very tight-lipped about the exact nature of McQuaid's injury, which is not uncommon for NHL teams at this time of year. Getting injury information in the NHL in the playoffs is only slightly easier than getting state secrets out of the Kremlin during the Cold War. We do know the injury stems from the hit into the boards he took on March 29 against the Capitals that earned Washington forward Jason Chimera a five-minute major for charging and game misconduct. McQuaid needed 18 stitches to close a cut around his eye but said in the days afterward that he had not been diagnosed with a concussion. Still, when he returned in Ottawa on April 5 after missing three games he lasted just seven minutes before leaving when Claude Julien said McQuaid "didn't feel quite right."

McQuaid sat out the final game of the regular season and has not practiced at all this week, so there is no definitive timetable for his return. He was ruled out of Game 1 but is still considered day-to-day, so it's possible he'll be able to return later in the series, but there's no way to know for certain at this point.

Corvo does appear to be the choice to replace him to start the series, but the Bruins still have the option of using Mike Mottau if Corvo struggles. Corvo brings a different element to the defense with his mobility and offensive potential, while Mottau is more of a stay-at-home type who plays a simpler, more reliable game. Considering that the Bruins will be missing the physical presence and shutdown ability of McQuaid, it's possible that Mottau could find his way into the lineup at some point during McQuaid's absence if the team is struggling defensively.

What aspect of the Caps' game should the Bruins focus on?
– Andrew Bogosian via Twitter (‏ @bogosian67)

Dale Hunter has managed to shore up Washington's defense quite a bit and the Capitals are no longer quite the run-and-gun bunch of the early Bruce Boudreau years, but the biggest threat to the Bruins is still Washington's immense skill up front. Alex Ovechkin isn't the 60-goal force he was a few years ago, but he is still capable of striking at any time. Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom are similarly dangerous, and the Capitals have plenty of secondary scoring with the likes of Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault and Troy Brouwer.

The good news is that the Bruins have always been a good defensive team under Claude Julien and that has continued this season with their team GAA of 2.43 ranking sixth in the league. The injuries on defense could be a factor, but Boston has the personnel to counter the Capitals' attack. It's a matter of executing that system and staying disciplined. Washington's power play was a modest 18th in the league at 16.7 percent, but the Bruins will be playing with fire if they give the Caps too many chances with the man advantage with the skill at Washingto'’s disposal.

How far can the Bruins last with [Nathan] Horton on the bench and juggernauts like the New York Rangers and Penguins out there?
– Ty Webb ‏via Twitter (@JamesonsRevenge)

I think a lot of that will be determined by the matchups the rest of the way. If the seedings hold to form, the Bruins would get Florida in the second round and the Rangers and Penguins would have to face each other. The winner would then likely be pretty beat up and the Bruins might be in a better position to advance to the Cup Final again. But NHL playoff brackets rarely follow form. If the Bruins get by Washington, they're more likely to draw the Penguins/Flyers winner as the Devils are favored to beat the Panthers. Back-to-back series against either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, then the Rangers will be a very tough road indeed.

But the Bruins aren't looking that far ahead. They're just focused on the Capitals, and beating them won't be easy either. Nothing is ever easy in the playoffs. That's especially true with a player of Horton’s caliber out of the lineup. Horton proved his ability to come through in the clutch last year with a pair of Game 7 winners, beating Montreal in overtime and Tampa Bay with a third-period strike for a 1-0 victory to put the Bruins in the Cup Final. Still, the Bruins overcame his loss in that Final series to beat the Canucks and they've managed without him again this year since he went down with another concussion on Jan. 22. Rich Peverley has returned from his knee injury and has experience playing with David Krejci and Milan Lucic, with his speed adding a different dimension to that combination. The Bruins would much rather have a healthy Horton in the lineup, but his absence shouldn’t be the deciding factor on how far Boston can advance this spring.

Which player or players really have to step up for the Bruins to be successful in the playoffs?
– Tommy Chapman via Facebook

The Bruins can be reasonably confident that the Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg top pairing on defense will be a formidable force on the blue line, but the key to keeping them together throughout last year's run was the solid play of the other guys on defense, especially the second pairing of Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk. Boston really needs that duo to shine again, which could be in question a bit with Boychuk coming off a knee injury. The third pairing will also have to step up with Adam McQuaid out for at least the start of the series. Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau were brought in for exactly that reason, while Joe Corvo will have a chance to make up for an inconsistent regular season if he can turn things around in the playoffs.

Up front, the top two lines are expected to produce offensively, but the real key could be the third line. Chris Kelly, Benoit Pouliot and Brian Rolston really clicked late in the year, combining for 13 goals and 34 points in the final 12 games they played together (Rolston was rested in the regular-season finale). If they can continue to chip in offensively like that, it will take pressure off the Krejci and Bergeron lines and open things up for everyone.

In goal, Tim Thomas shouldn't be a question mark after his stellar performance last year. But he was much less consistent this season, struggling through much of the second half of the campaign. He seemed to round into his old form late in the year, and he will have to carry that momentum into the playoffs. He may not be able to repeat his historic showing from last year's Cup run, but he can't be too far off if the Bruins want to go deep again.

Will [Tyler] Seguin stay on a line with [Brad] Marchand and [Patrice] Bergeron throughout the entire playoffs?
– Rob Savage via Facebook

Line combinations are always subject to change if injuries strike or the team is struggling and in need of a shakeup, but Claude Julien is usually pretty patient and gives the units time to jell. That trio has excelled playing together for most of the season and there shouldn't be a reason to break them up any time soon. Bergeron's defensive abilities give Seguin the opportunity to use his offensive skills more, as Bergeron can cover for any lapses better than most centers.

That was the problem when Seguin played with David Krejci and Milan Lucic. They had great chemistry offensively and produced some pretty goals, but they also were responsible for far too many scores at the other end of the ice. Rich Peverley's all-around game is a better complement to those two, while Bergeron, Marchand and Seguin together produced a line that had all three in the top five on the team in scoring and the top five in the league in plus/minus. Barring injury, they should have plenty of chances to continue that magic in the postseason.

Have questions for Douglas Flynn's mailbag? Leave them in the comments section below, send them to him via Twitter @douglasflynn or send them here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week. Be sure to check back to see if your question was answered.

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