This year, things were a little different. Washington didn't secure a postseason spot until the final days of the season and comes in as the seventh seed in the eight-team field in the Eastern Conference.
There's another difference, too. This will be the first postseason the Capitals will have Dale Hunter behind the bench. Hunter took over after Bruce Boudreau was fired Nov. 28, and after some initial struggles, Hunter has managed to put his stamp on the team's attitude and approach.
"Under Hunts, I think it's just a whole different personality," Bruins coach Claude Julien said Monday after his club practiced in preparation for Boston's first-round series with Washington. "I played with Hunts a little bit in Quebec with the Nordiques. He's a no-nonsense guy. He just goes and he does his thing. He doesn't care. He really doesn't care about anybody or the perception. He does what he thinks is right, and that's how he is."
Julien saw that firsthand in Quebec, where he played all 14 of the games of his NHL career, 13 of which came in the 1985-86 season. Hunter played all 80 games for the Nordiques that year, racking up a career-high 265 penalty minutes. And a career-high in PIMs is no small achievement for a player who finished second all-time in NHL history with 3,563 PIMs. But Hunter also matched a personal best with 28 goals that season, showing that sometimes a pugnacious approach can pay dividends.
He's trying to do the same thing now as a coach, with his style a radical departure from the methods employed by his predecessor.
"As we all know Bruce was a little bit more of a guy that wants to work with the guys and share things and go that way," Julien said. "So they've had a different situation. [It's the] same thing with Anaheim — they lose Randy [Carlyle] and they get Bruce. Sometimes teams make those changes and bring different personalities in."
Hunter's personality is definitely different, but Julien sees the Capitals gradually taking on some the traits that made Hunter so difficult to play against as a player with an improved work ethic and a greater attention to defensive responsibilities. Boudreau had actually begun to implement those changes by stressing more of a focus on defense, but Hunter has really hammered home that philosophy.
"It's hard to tell, because I know Bruce had tried to make his team better defensively," Julien said. "When Hunts came in it took him a while to get going, which is a normal thing for a coach. But there's no doubt — I think every team kind of takes the coach's personality eventually."
All four of the Bruins' meetings with Washington this season came after the coaching change, and the Capitals won three of those games. The Bruins players noticed a change in Washington's attitude from previous seasons under Boudreau.
"Maybe it's a little more serious," Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. "I really don't know how it was before, but they seem to be a little more serious there now. They work extremely hard."
The Capitals were 12-9-1 when Boudreau was fired, but after starting the season 7-0-0 they had lost eight of their last 11 before the coaching move. Hunter was 30-23-7 overall behind the bench after leaving the London Knights, the OHL team he coached and co-owned, to return to Washington, but that included a 13-6-3 mark in the final 22 games of the season.
While Hunter's penalty-minute totals as a player showed a distain for discipline, his approach behind the bench is much more structured. That includes a preference to match lines whenever possible. He'll face more of a challenge to do that with the Bruins having the final change on home ice for the majority of the series, but Julien doesn't want to fall slave to the matchups himself.
"That's the good thing about having the last change at home, you can control that to a certain extent," Julien said. "If he wants to hard match and we want to hard match, are we taking away part of our game? That's the thing that we'll have to decide as we go along here. At least with home ice advantage on faceoffs you get to pick and choose. If he wants to change on the fly and we want to continue trying to do that, then I think a lot of it will be playing into their strength versus ours."