By Mike Miccoli, Boston Bruins correspondent
Everyone is picking the Boston Bruins over the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs. Almost unanimously, in fact.
The reason behind each of these picks is the same, too—the Capitals, essentially, aren’t the same feared team they were in years past. If you factor in Washington’s ho-hum record during the regular season and the fact that their goaltending situation is a sort of carousel that would make the Philadelphia Flyers blush, than I guess it would make sense to pick the Bruins over the Capitals.
Me? I’m not sold yet. I might not be sold at all, actually.
I’ll be the first to admit that outside of the four games between Boston and Washington, I’ve only seen a handful of the Capitals’ games. I realize that the last time Washington was atop a weak Southeast Division was two months ago. I understand that Alex Ovechkin has looked ordinary, even lazy at times. I know about the lopsided goal differentials between both teams. I can even rationalize that, if for some reason Braden Holtby doesn’t hold up in net, the Washington white flags will be at half-mast if Dany Sabourin enters the crease at any point during the series.
I get it. Really, I do.
But based on matchups alone, the Capitals are going to present some problems for the Bruins. An easy option to pick Boston to advance? Not so fast.
The Capitals won three of four games against the Bruins this season, the last coming in a shootout after a game that looked like neither team wanted to win. The matchup factor is strong in the playoffs. It’s part of the reason why the Bruins could struggle against teams like the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins but could dominate a series against the Philadelphia Flyers. The regular season games-won often provide some momentum for teams going into the postseason. Washington was able to beat this Boston team three times over the course of the season.
Washington matches up well against Boston, more so than an Ottawa Senators club would have. The Capitals have big forwards who aren’t afraid to get physical in the corners, forcing the puck out to the slot. Guys like Matt Hendricks and Troy Brouwer should have no problem going into the dirty areas of the ice. When Boston shoves their opponents, they’re going to get pushed right back.
While it’s all but guaranteed that Zdeno Chara will be on the ice for every second that Ovechkin is, the Capitals do have some depth. Nicklas Backstrom will be back in the lineup, providing another threat on the ice for Washington. Whereas Chara will be defending Ovechkin, his defensive partner Dennis Seidenberg should be monitoring Backstrom.
The Capitals do have players who could break-out; secondary scorers that have potential to alter games. Last season’s playoff hero, Joel Ward could be looked at as a prime candidate as will Marcus Johansson, a player who has three goals and two assists in seven games against the Bruins and Mathieu Perreault, who has three goals in four games against the B’s.
Of course, the Capitals have their flaws. The much-talked about turnovers in their own zone could haunt Washington. Defenseman John Carlson is fourth in the NHL with 92 giveaways, while former Bruin Dennis Wideman is 17th with 68. If the Bruins are able to make the most out of the Capitals’ mistakes right away in the series, it should swing the momentum in Boston’s favor. Then, there’s Holtby, third on the goaltending depth chart for the Capitals. Though he was outstanding in a 35-save outing against the Rangers on Saturday, he’s never played in the postseason. He has seen the Bruins previously, in his first appearance in the NHL, a ten-minute, four save outing coming in relief back on November 5, 2010.
The Capitals are playing for their own pride in the postseason, similar to what everyone saw from Tampa Bay last season. They’re out to prove people wrong and what better way to do so than by ousting the reigning Cup champions in the first round? The Capitals won’t be an easy opponent for the Bruins.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Holtby cracks under the pressure and gets lit up by the Bruins. Maybe Boston out-muscles Washington. Maybe Ovechkin is held irrelevant and Tim Thomas looks stellar.
Personally, I just can’t see this being anything less than a seven-game series. Who wins? You tell me.
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Mike Miccoli covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers and has been a credentialed member of the media for all Bruins’ home games for the past five years. As a former player, coach and official, Miccoli has been around the game of hockey since the age of three. Along with his work on THW, Miccoli has also been published in the New England Hockey Journal, Improper Bostonian magazine and on BostInno.