First round series breakdown: Bruins (2) vs. Capitals (7)
The Capitals are hot, and running into the defending champs at a bad time
Boston's play has improved, but injuries will put pressure on the defense
Healthy again, the Caps' Nicklas Backstrom has series-turning potential
Regular season series: Capitals win, 3-1
Key injuries: Boston -- RW Nathan Horton (concussion, indefinite), D Adam McQuaid (head, day to day), D Johnny Boychuk (knee, day to day), G Tuukka Rask (abdominal/groin strain, day to day ). Washington -- G Michal Neuvirth (lower body, day to day), G Tomas Vokoun (groin, indefinite)
Snapshot: Forget that they needed a blistering finish just to sneak into the postseason. After taking three of four meetings with Boston this season, the Caps have to like their chances against the defending champs. They've shown they can beat Boston on the road (including twice in the past month). They've pulled key players back from IR and into the lineup (Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green). Alex Ovechkin has rediscovered his joy and his hunger, scoring 11 times in his final 13 games, his best pace of the season. And that finishing kick was powered by a fairly salty defensive effort that seemed to capture what coach Dale Hunter has been preaching since he joined the Caps in midseason.
The problem is, they're running into a Bruins team that finally seems to have shaken extended bouts of post-Cup malaise. Boston finished the season on a 9-2-1 roll. You hate to say they flipped the proverbial switch, but their game sure looked a lot more like the smart, disciplined and physically relentless style that propelled them through four series wins last spring -- even in that late-March loss to the Caps.
Are these Bruins as fearsome as last year's champs? Absent the timely goal scoring of Michael Ryder (free agency) and Nathan Horton (likely out for the year), and having never really replaced Mark Recchi, they seem to lack the sheer volume of offensive spark plugs that ignited their Cup run. Still, they scored at a better clip than last season (260-244), thanks to a few surprise efforts, including a strong sophomore campaign from Tyler Seguin (the youngest leading scorer in franchise history), the first 20-goal season of Chris Kelly's career, and the more consistent play of Benoit Pouliot. The Caps may have more flash, but Boston's depth (a league-leading six 20-goal scorers) and five-on-five offense (again, tops in the NHL), seems to give them a sizable edge.
That said, the hopes of these Bruins will rest squarely, as did those of last year's squad, on the Shrek-like shoulders of goaltender Tim Thomas. Assuming his proximity to the White House doesn't bring on the yips, Thomas gives Boston a tremendous advantage over whoever dresses for the Caps -- with Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth nursing injuries, that's likely to be young Braden Holtby. Sure, the B's have had issues with rookie goalies wearing red, white and blue in the past, but if Holtby can't channel the spirit of Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy (or Steve Penney, for cryin' out loud), he isn't up to this challenge yet. And neither is the more seasoned Neuvirth, if he's able to go.
One element that might work in Washington's favor: as the seven seed, the pressure is off. The team's key players have wilted in the face of heightened expectations during the past couple of springs, and this seems to be a group that hasn't yet figured out how to perform as front runners. If Hunter can keep them loose and focused, they might finally find the confidence to fight through the rough patches and come out on top.
Spotlight's on: Alexander Semin. I'm guessing there haven't been many mentions made of Semin without employing the adjective "enigmatic." Honestly, isn't that just a nice way of saying disappointing? When less talented players like Max Pacioretty and David Clarkson score half again as many as Semin's 21, maybe it's time to stop waiting for Guffman and just recognize this guy for what he is: a player who, sadly, is less than the sum of his parts.
Still, it's impossible not to fall into his trap, isn't it? You see flashes of that world-class talent, you see his running buddy, Nicklas Backstrom, slotted next to him again on that second line and you can't help but imagine that this spring, finally, will be the one in which Semin breaks out. The year when he fully employs that one-on-one magic to discombobulate a blueline not once, but game after game, resulting in goal after goal, finally delivering the tide-turning performance that everyone knows lives within him.
But this isn't that year...right?
X-Factor for the Bruins: The health of the blueline. Adam McQuaid? After "not" suffering a concussion from a hard hit delivered by Washington's Jason Chimera late last month, he complained of "not feeling right" and left Boston's penultimate game against the Sens after just seven minutes. Johnny Boychuk? After suffering a knee injury against Pittsburgh, the hard-hitting blueliner sat out the final two games of the regular season.
Both defenders are day-to-day at the moment, and Boychuk is considered likely for the opener, but their status has to be a serious concern. Boychuk finished fourth on the team in hits (145), third in blocked shots (133) and fifth in shots taken (171). He's one of those guys who always finds a way to make a contribution. McQuaid might be Boston's nastiest weapon on the back end, a heavy hitter who doesn't mind dropping the gloves.
More to the point, their replacements -- Mike Mottau and Joe Corvo -- are significant downgrades, especially in the jam department. It seems likely the Caps would feast on a third pairing featuring these two, especially when the series shifts to Washington and they earn the benefit of last change.
The Bruins were able to thrive last season because of the seamless integration of their depth players. Getting past the Caps will demand the same.
X-Factor for the Capitals: Nicklas Backstrom. After missing 40 games with a head injury, the nifty pivot professed full health and returned for the final four matches of the regular season to fill the gaping hole he'd left in the lineup. No surprise that his first three contests were characterized by failed pass attempts, shots that sailed wide of the cage, and the sort of tentative play that bedevils many athletes who are trying to find their form after long layoffs. But that last contest, the 4-1 win over the Rangers in the season finale? That was the Backstrom the Capitals need. His dishes were flat and found their mark. His shots -- like the nasty snapper that eluded Henrik Lundqvist early in the second -- were full of zip. And the courage that's always been an underrated element of his game was back in spades, as Ryan Callahan can attest.
That right there is the key for a player with a serious injury still fresh in his mind. The Bruins are not a genteel bunch, and Backstrom is one hard hit from a trip to Palookaville. But if he brings that same reckless abandon, and can maintain the sharpness he showed against the Rangers, Backstrom can be the pivotal player in this series.
The Pick: Bruins in 6
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