Last year, the Bruins’ postseason opened in familiar territory with a matchup against the hated Habs. It ended in a strange and wonderful new place, though, with the Bruins sitting atop duck boats as huge crowds lined the streets to cheer on the club, and that big shiny Cup they hadn’t held in 39 years.
This season, the playoffs begin a little differently. Boston opens as the second seed in the East and will face Washington in the postseason for just the third time in franchise history and the first time since 1998. That year also happens to be the last time a team repeated as Cup champions, when Detroit won it in 1997 and 1998. Now the Bruins will face the pressure of everyone gunning for the reigning champs
How will the B’s fare in the first step toward a potential repeat? Here’s the Tale of the Tape:
Offense: Based simply on name recognition, the edge here would go to Washington. After all, any lineup featuring Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin would appear strong on paper. Ovechkin (38-27-65) is still plenty dangerous but isn’t quite the 60-goal threat he was a few years ago, while Backstrom (44 points in 42 games) missed much of the year with a concussion, and Semin (21-33-54) has always been an enigma. He has the talent to dominate but not always the drive. There is some depth here with Marcus Johansson (14-32-46), Brooks Laich (16-25-41), Jason Chimera (20-19-39) and Troy Brouwer (18-15-33), and the defense can chip in as well with Mike Green and Dennis Wideman (11-35-46). Still, the Capitals finished just 14th in the league with 218 goals, an average of 2.66 a game.
The Bruins, meanwhile, were tied for second with 260 goals (3.17 a game). That was driven largely by the line of Patrice Bergeron (22-42-64), Brad Marchand (28-27-55) and Tyler Seguin (team-high 29-38-67). The Bruins didn’t have anyone with 30 goals, but they do have balance with six 20-goal scorers. That includes David Krejci (23-39-62) and Milan Lucic (26-35-61), who will be joined by Rich Peverley (42 points in 57 games), with Nathan Horton out for the year with a concussion. Just as important could be the third line of Chris Kelly between Benoit Pouliot and Brian Rolston, which came on strong late with 13 goals and 34 points in their last 12 games together. Advantage: Bruins
Defense: There are some injury concerns, but the Bruins once again have a strong blue line corps. Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara leads the way and will likely be paired with Dennis Seidenberg again after they combined to form a dominant shutdown pair last postseason. The second pairing was also impressive last spring, and Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk will have to come up big again this postseason. Boychuk is coming off a knee injury but returned to practice this week and should be ready for the start of the series. Adam McQuaid (upper body) doesn’t appear ready to return yet, though, which will leave Greg Zanon and Joe Corvo for the final pairing, with Mike Mottau in reserve. Zanon has been solid since coming over at the trade deadline, but Corvo has struggled for much of his first season in Boston.
The Capitals can produce offense from the blue line with Wideman and Green, who has battled injuries himself much of this year. John Carlson is one of the better young defensemen in the league, and Karl Alzner has also been solid, while Roman Hamrlik is a serviceable veteran. Jeff Schultz could see playing time as the sixth defenseman to add size to the unit, with Dmitry Orlov the other option. The team’s defensive play has improved under Dale Hunter, but the Caps were still just 21st in the league in goals against (2.76 per game), while the Bruins ranked sixth (2.43). Advantage: Bruins
Goaltending: This should be the most lopsided category between the teams. The Bruins boast Tim Thomas, a two-time Vezina winner who also earned the Conn Smythe last year after a historic playoff run to lead the Bruins to the Cup. He’s been more inconsistent this year and struggled for much of the second half of the season, but he finished strong with a 6-1-1 record in his final eight games, allowing more than two goals just once in that span (when he gave up three to Buffalo in the regular-season finale that had no impact on the standings for either team). There are questions behind him, with Tuukka Rask sidelined since March 3 with an abdominal/groin tear. He has returned to practice, but Anton Khudobin will likely begin the postseason as Thomas’ backup.
The Capitals have bigger injury concerns, with starter Tomas Vokoun sidelined with a groin injury and Michal Neuvirth battling a leg injury. That leaves youngster Braden Holtby to open the series. He’s just 22 and has played just 21 career games in the NHL, including seven this season. But he has been pretty effective (14-4-3, 2.02 GAA, .929 save percentage) and could surprise. Neuvirth is making the trip to Boston, while Vokoun will stay in Washington. Advantage: Bruins
Special teams: The Bruins proved last year that a team can win a Cup without an effective power play as they won despite going 10 for 88 (11.4 percent), including 0 for 21 in the opening round against Montreal. That’s not a recipe they’d like to follow again, and the Bruins did show some improvement during the year (43-250, 17.2 percent). That was enough to finish 15th in the league, three spots ahead of Washington (41-245, 16.7 percent). The Bruins did struggle down the stretch, though, going 2 for 21 in their final 10 games.
Boston’s penalty-killers were better, finishing 11th at 83.5 percent (43-260), compared to Washington’s 21st-rank PK (49-266, 81.6 percent). The Bruins are more dangerous a man down as well, scoring eight shorthanded goals while allowing a league-low one. Washington was 25th in the league with three shorthanded goals while allowing 10. As hard as it may seem with the Bruins power-play struggles last year, against Washington this one is actually… Advantage: Bruins
Coaching: Claude Julien has guided the Bruins to the postseason in each of his five seasons behind the Boston bench, won the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s top coach in 2009 and guided the Bruins to the first back-to-back Northeast Division titles since the division’s inception in 1994 with titles the past two seasons. Oh, and he also was instrumental in helping the Bruins hoist the Cup for the first time in 39 years last spring.
Dale Hunter has enjoyed plenty of success in the junior ranks as a coach and co-owner of the OHL’s London Knights but has coached just 60 games in the NHL since taking over after Bruce Boudreau was fired in late November. Hunter is 30-23-7 with the Caps, including 13-6-3 in the final 22 games of the season. He’s also improved the Caps’ defensive play significantly and begun to put his stamp on the team with his aggressive personality. Advantage: Bruins
Intangibles: There are a number of additional factors that could sway this series. The Bruins obviously have the edge in playoff experience with the bulk of last year’s Cup-winning roster returning. The Caps do have some experience hoisting that special silver chalice, with Mike Knuble winning it with Detroit in 1998 and Troy Brouwer with Chicago in 2010. The Bruins also have a decided advantage in toughness and grit, finishing second in the league with 61 fighting majors while Washington was 26th with 26. Shawn Thornton nearly matched the whole Caps roster on his own, tying for the league-lead with 20 fights. The Bruins had the third-most penalty minutes with 13.4 a game, while the Caps were a very un-Hunter-like sixth lowest in the league at 9.4. Boston will need to stay disciplined and stay out of the box, and there aren’t likely to be many fights in the postseason, but the Bruins still need to play to their strengths and impose their physical style of play on this series.
There’s limited history between the clubs in the postseason. They’ve met just twice, with the Bruins sweeping the 1990 Wales Conference Final and Washington winning 4-2 in a first-round matchup in 1998 best remembered for the P.J. Axelsson overtime goal that was disallowed because of Tim Taylor’s infamous toe in the crease. Both teams have injury issues, with the Bruins missing Horton (concussion) and Adam McQuaid (upper body), Rask (abdominal/groin) questionable and Johnny Boychuk (knee) probable. The Caps have goalies Tomas Vokoun (groin) and Michal Neuvirth (leg) banged up, while defenseman Tom Poti (groin) has been out all year.
Both teams come in with plenty of momentum. The Bruins finished strong with a 9-2-1 mark in their final 12 games, while Washington was 6-2-2 in its final 10 games, playing its way into the playoffs and the seventh seed with wins over division champions Florida and the New York Rangers in the final two games. The Bruins also hold home ice for the series, which could be key with the Capitals just 16-21-4 on the road and 26-11-4 at home. Boston’s splits are much more even at 24-14-3 at home and 25-15-1 on the road. Of course, two of Washington’s road wins came at the Garden, and the Caps won three of the four meetings overall. Advantage: Bruins
Overall: Some of the margins may be close, but just about everywhere you look, the Bruins hold the edge in this matchup. This should be the Bruins’ series. They are the deeper and better team and are the second seed, not to mention the reigning champs, for a reason. Still, strange things can happen in the playoffs, and early-round upsets are almost the norm in the NHL, so the Bruins can’t take anything for granted. Boston’s playoff experience should help guard against that, and the Bruins should begin their title defense with a shorter opening round than the seven-game epic against Montreal that opened last year’s historic run.
Prediction: Bruins in 5.