The Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals meet tonight in game one of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series. The Bruins enter heavily favored to dispatch Washington despite losing their season-series to them.
In the past week we’ve looked at the history between the squads in Part I, the even-strength matchup (Part II), special teams, goaltending (Part III) and intangibles (Part IV). Now, to conclude the Bruins/Caps series preview with a few short hours until the puck is dropped, here are the keys to the series as well as a fearless prediction of the outcome:
Keys to the Series
- The Bruins need to score first: They’ve taken a League-Best 85.3% of available points when they pick up the first goal of a game. Any time the Bruins have led by two this season, they’ve won: they’re 38-0-0 when leading by multiple goals at any point in 2011-12.
- The Caps need to prevent the Bruins from taking a lead into the third: The B’s haven’t lost a game this season when
they’ve had an edge headed into the final frame.
- The Caps need to get traffic in front of Thomas and also hold onto the puck to take advantage of his aggressive play.
- The Bruins need to be physically and emotionally engaged. Their play is infinitely better when they play angry – to a point.
- The Bruins need to get the matchups they want and force the Caps’ third and fourth lines to beat them.
- The Capitals need to goad the Bruins into taking bad penalties and expose the B’s breakout game with an aggressive forecheck.
- The Capitals need to reverse or at least mitigate Boston’s faceoff successes against them: This season the Bruins won 136 of 238 draws against Washington – a lofty 57.1%.
- The Bruins need their third and fourth lines to be the positive factors that they were in the 2011 postseason – at both ends of the ice.
- The Bruins need to keep the Caps to fewer than three goals: The Capitals were 34-5-5 when scoring at least three goals in a game and just 8-27-3 when scoring two or fewer.
Neither team enters this series as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup. While this might be a good ways short of a surprise for the Caps – for the defending champs, a team that took almost ninety percent of available points over a span of more than two months and win their division for the second-straight year, this narrative would be shocking if we hadn’t heard it for so much of the past few months.
The Bruins are a team that ices one of the best offenses with one of the best defenses in the game and has the defending Conn Smythe and Vezina winner between the pipes. Despite injures to Rask, McQuaid and Horton (who’s unfortunately out for the season thanks to post-concussion symptoms); the ‘decline’ in Thomas’ play and the B’s struggles for two months starting in mid-January – they remain among the League’s elite.
Yes, the Bruins ought to be wary of the suddenly-underdog Capitals. They possess electric offensive talents. Alex Ovechkin’s production may have lessened in recent seasons, but he still has a high place in the pantheon of the NHL’s best.
Nick Backstrom’s recovery makes their attack that much more dynamic and despite underwhelming seasons from many of their key players, Washington remains a dangerous opponent. Let’s not forget that the Caps did beat the Bruins on three of four occasions in 2012.
If the Capitals are able to motivate themselves as underdogs (at least better than they have as front-runners), the Bruins could be in for a difficult two weeks. However, to suggest the Caps are playing without any pressure is silly – they came into this season as one of the top contenders – and the D.C. fanbase is getting restless with all of these early exits.
Eventually, the balance of the series will come down to a few major issues: The Bruins should hold serve on the man advantage/disadvantage, forcing Washington to match their even-strength play. The Caps should not be able to come close to the B’s at five-on-five and that could make for a short series.
Similarly, the disparity between the team’s goaltenders is huge: Braden Holtby is a talented young netminder who will likely be a starter down the road at the Verizon Center or otherwise. However, with precious little professional experience, Holtby may be overwhelmed by the intensity of the NHL’s postseason. Still, even an average postseason performance from Tim Thomas would be exceedingly difficult for Holtby to match. It’s a massive advantage for the B’s to be able to trot out their two-time Vezina winner every night.
There are precious few teams that can match the Bruins’ depth – and the Caps certainly aren’t one of them. Defensively, the Caps’ will have to rely heavily on Karl Alzner and hope their more offensive-minded blueliners have strong series’ in their own end to prevent the Bruins from overwhelming the Capitals with their relentless attack in five-on-five play.
If the Capitals find the back of the net like they’re able this could be a long series. However, unless Holtby channels his inner Cam Ward, this won’t end well for Washington. The Bruins are just the superior squad with oodles of experience and really should walk away from this one rather quickly. Tim Thomas is back to his Conn Smythe form as the Bruins win in five games.
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.