The Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals will meet Thursday in game one of their seven-game Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
The Caps won three of four meetings between the clubs this season – but will that translate to postseason success against the defending champs? Yesterday we reviewed the Bruins and Capitals’ shared history in Part I of a five-part series preview. Today we’ll begin to break down the matchup with an analysis of the teams’ even-strength capabilities.
When the Bruins Attack at Even Strength:
The Capitals have a rough road ahead of them defensively. The Bruins have been one of the best attacking teams in the League this year and average well above three goals per game – they were the top scoring squad at even-strength with 191 goals in 5-on-5 play. Simultaneously, Washington enters the playoffs as the third-worst of the sixteen postseason squads by goals-allowed and average 2.76 goals allowed per contest. In even-strength play the Caps gave up a middle-of-the-road 149 goals (fifteenth).
Despite going into the postseason without a top-25 scorer (their best is Seguin at a tie for twenty-sixth), the Bruins have outstanding offensive depth. The B’s will start the playoffs with six forwards who have scoring rates in the top 75 or higher (min. 50 games): Seguin, David Krejci, Rich Peverley, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand – only Pittsburgh (five) comes close. Add Zdeno Chara to the mix (the fourth-highest scoring defenseman in the League) along with several productive bottom-sixers like Chris Kelly, Brian Rolston, Benoit Pouliot and arguably the best fourth line in hockey – you have a recipe for an overwhelming offensive assault.
Conversely, the Capitals’ defense is middling at best. They allow more than thirty shots per-game (while Boston generates a prodigious amount of shots) and give the puck away as much as all but the sloppiest teams in the League. Still, they do block shots at an elevated rate and are among the League-leaders in takeaways.
While the Bruins lineup is full of players who excel at producing shots at even strength, the Caps conversely have very poor corsi-against numbers and don’t really have a ‘plus’ shot-preventer in the lineup. Three of their starting defensemen (Dennis Wideman, Mike Green and John Carlson) are decidedly more proficient at attacking-zone play than behind their own blue line and the other three aren’t quite premier shut-down defensemen. The Caps have some very solid two-way and checking forwards including Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, Jason Chimera and Joel Ward.
During the four-game season-series the B’s scored ten times at even-strength (disregarding their empty-netter). Six of these were the product of extended offensive pressure or forecheck-forced turnovers. Only one of their 5-on-5 tallies came on an odd-man rush. Another was the direct result of a faceoff win (by Bergeron), quickly snapped home by Lucic.
Folks, this is an area where Boston should really gain an edge. Despite winning three of four against Boston, the Capitals allowed the B’s to put up twelve goals – even though three of those games came during the B’s awful late January to mid-March run. Boston’s offense is relentless and as long as they remain healthy, they will be able to put up some crooked numbers against overmatched Caps defenders.
Significant Advantage: Boston
When the Capitals Attack at Even-Strength
A top-heavy offense is the Capitals’ strength. Alex Ovechkin was the League’s fifth-leading goal scorer, Nicklas Backstrom tallied more than a point per-game and Alex Semin remains inconsistent – but as deadly a shooter as they come. The Caps have received improved contributions from depth scorers like Marcus Johannson, Chimera, Laich and Mathieu Perreault. They trio of offensive-defensemen are among the most talented in the League.
Of course, the majority of Washington’s myriad weapons haven’t seen their best days this season. Ovechkin’s production dipped below a point-per-game for the first time in his career. Semin had his worst goal-scoring campaign since his rookie season. Significant concussion issues kept Backstrom out of the lineup for almost half the season. Once the preeminent attack-minded blueliner in the post-lockout era, Mike Green registered just a single assist after the All-Star break.
All this was reflected in the Caps’ offensive woes. They accrued their lowest goal-total in the reign of Alex the Great – sitting a pedestrian fourteenth in the NHL. That production was similarly uninspiring in 5-on-5 situations: They tallied just 152 goals at full-strength (they did, however, lead the NHL in 4-on-4 tallies).
Much depends on the Caps’ Backstrom. Since his March 31 return from a concussion, he’s put up just two points in four games. His inability to score was a big reason the Bolts swept the Caps out of the East Semifinals last year. He’s not on the top line with Ovie, so the pressure shouldn’t be too high (and he will probably avoid the Chara-Seidenberg pairing) but the Caps need production from him.
The Bruins’ Achilles’ heel has been their shots-allowed totals in recent seasons, but this year they’ve calmed things down in front of Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, allowing a middle-of-the-road 29.6 SOG’s per game. Washington doesn’t take a ton of shots, so if the B’s keep denying opportunities like they have this season, they could be in-line for success against the Caps.
The B’s have some of the best defensive weapons to trot out against the Capitals. Chara was (again) voted as the most difficult defenseman to line up against this season by NHL players. His toughness, intelligence and enormous wingspan make him exceedingly difficult to beat even in the best of circumstances. Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference are some of the more underrated blueliners in the game and bring outstanding effort, physicality and poise every time they take to the ice.
Additionally, the B’s can trot out several of the best two-way forwards in the game. Bergeron and Krejci have long been lauded for their defensive acumen (Bergeron is a solid bet to win the Selke Trophy as the League’s best defensive forward this season). Marchand is a proven playoff performer and solid two-way winger. Peverley and Chris Kelly are outstanding in the neutral and defensive zones. There are very few weak links defensively among the B’s forward personnel – you could probably count them on one hand (with room to spare). It doesn’t hurt that the B’s have two superb faceoff-takers (Peverley and Bergeron) and three very solid pivots to follow.
It will be up to Alex Ovechkin to try and come up with some attacking magic against a team which he hasn’t found much success (among Eastern Conference teams, he has fewer points and goals against only one). If Backstrom was coming in on a tear, one could feel much better about the Caps attacking chances. That isn’t the case, so they’ll have to hope the five-day layoff is enough to get him back to near-peak performance.
Of the ten even-strength goals the Capitals scored on the Bruins, six were created off of turnovers. They scored four goals on odd-man rushes/break-ins and five were the direct result of forechecking pressure. They were only able to take advantage of the B’s weak link on the blueline – Joe Corvo – on two occasions, despite getting several chances to score because of his play.
In the end, the Capitals should be able to score against the B’s – but not as much as they’d hope. With the Bruins excellent depth and commitment to Claude Julien’s defensive system it’s just too much to expect a team to consistently break through.
Slight Advantage: Boston
Remember to check back in tomorrow as we analyze the special-teams and goaltending matchups in Part III and the intangibles, injuries and key players in Part IV. The preview concludes in Part V with final keys to the series and the author’s prediction.
Bob is a Boston Bruins Correspondent for The Hockey Writers. He lives in the Boston Metro Area with his wife, Amanda and their five-year-old son, Cormac.