“Repeat after me…”
After the sixth month grind of an appetizer that saw the Bruins become the first repeat Northeast winner since divisions were reset, the defending Stanley Cup champs are eyeing the entrée that is the playoffs in hopes of becoming just the second team in 20 years to repeat as the last team standing. A daunting task, for sure. But as this particular squad has shown numerous times over the last two seasons, doubt them at your own peril.
Unsurprisingly, the Bs stumbled out of the gate after playing 25 extra games after last year’s regular season and then seemingly drank in every bar from Charlestown to the Czech Republic to celebrate their incredible winning run. But by November they were running on all cylinders and went on a tear to stockpile points that came in handy when the Senators refused to go away.
After the impossible-to-sustain winning pace of November and December, the Bs fell back to Earth when the calendar turned. Tim Thomas looked like a mere mortal, many players looked gassed, and suddenly the team was being questioned in many quarters (though not this one). But, as the Bruins are wont to do, they just grinded through a hellacious March schedule that had them playing 17 games, got their wind and legs back, and simply started playing their game again (perhaps spurred on by that one day they woke up and saw the Sens usurp their divisional lead). An early clinch allowed them to rest key parts over the last two weeks so this team should have absolutely no issues with being tired or fatigued and any hangover talk from here on out should only relate to Bill W.
On tap in the first round for the Bs are the perennially disappointing Washington Capitals. After bobbing and weaving with the Sabres, Lightning, and Senators for a few months for the last two spots, the Caps did enough in the last couple of weeks to swipe the #7 seed from Ottawa (thanks in large part to a disinterested Hank Lundqvist in their last game). After surrendering under the weight of expectations the last few years, the Caps are being billed by some as the “nothing to lose” bunch simply because they’re the seventh seed playing the Cup champs. But if they go one-and-done again, it’s going to be yet another flop by the D.C. bunch. Let’s take a deeper look at the match-ups…
The Bs will be trotting out their quirky reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas Jefferson. Despite what some considered an ‘off’ year (one noted scribe actually gave him a D in his post-season report card), he still finished with a respectable .920 and 2.36 and will be relied upon to once again be the top-notch puck-stopper he was last spring. Should he unexpectedly falter, the Bs have will have Anton Khudobin/Tuukka Rask to jump in. Though Khudobin has a small sample size, Bruins fans shouldn’t panic if he ends up in a game as a he’s pretty damn good goalie. Once Rask is fully healthy, he’ll slide into the back-up role and nobody will panic if the Bs have to go to the lanky Finn at some point.
Thanks to injuries to the goalie they brought in to help them get over the hump (Tomas Vokoun) and his back-up (Michal Neuvirth), the Caps will be trotting out 22-year-old Braden Holtby—he of the 21 career NHL games. But if history has taught us anything, Lisa, and it hasn’t, it’s that young, unproven but highly-thought of goalies should not be ignored come playoff time (see: Ward, Giguere, Hextall, Roy, Dryden). Still, at the end of the day, you have the reigning champ going against a guy who will be seeing his first playoff action tonight. And if Holtby should join his injured brethren on the sidelines, in comes Dany Sabourin, which means the Caps are fucked. Advantage: Bruins.
It’s pretty much a given that Claude will once again pair up Big Z and everybody’s favorite German to provide the shutdown D that prevents more scoring opportunities than a bar full of cock-blocking fat broads. Those two will be seeing a ton of Alexander Ovechkin and Z while has done a bang-up job of limiting the Russian’s prolific offense in the past, he’ll need to continue to do it here to stifle and frustrate the dynamic forward. The second pairing of Ference and Boychuk provides a nice blend of toughness, defensive awareness, and the occasional burst of offense. However, all eyes will be on Boychuk to see how he’s feeling after wrenching his knee in the last week of the season. On paper, Greg Zanon and Adam McQuaid are the final pairing. But because of the nasty gash (but no concussion…um, right?) that McQuaid suffered against the Caps a couple weeks ago, he’s out for at least tonight. Claude said he’ll decide after warm-ups whether it’ll be Joe Corvo or Mike Mottau that gets the call. Most seem to think it’ll be Corvo because of the offensive aspect of his game and PP contributions, despite the fact he was a disaster in his own end this year. The thinking is that if the Bs could ‘bury’ Kaberle in the same spot last year, they can do it with Corvo this year. But don’t completely rule out Mottau and his steady, stay-at-home style showing up at some point in the series, particularly if Corvo starts dropping scared farts in front of Thomas.
On the Caps’ D, the leader in ice-time is a guy they picked up at the deadline for last year’s run to replace the injured Mike Green and Tom Poti. His name? Dennis Wideman. He’s still a helter-skelter guy who can not only still put points on the board but often be seen looking skyward while his goalie shovels yet another puck out of his net. But his -8 is still better than the -15 sported by the guy second in ice-time, John Carlson (the two don’t play on the same pairing however). Mike Green is a dangerous PP specialist but he may not be at 100% as he’s coming off injury, not to mention he’s not exactly Konstantinov in his own end. Karl Alzer and vet Roman Hamrlik are solid D-men. Either Jeff Schultz or Dmitry Orlov will fill the final spot with the other likely serving as the seventh D-man. Though the top pair of Carlson and Alzner could be effective, the Bs will look to expose the Caps when the other guys are on the ice. Advantage: Bruins.
The Bruins best strength up front is their depth. Eight of their top nine forwards tallied double digits in goals and six of those eight had 20 or more goals. And thanks to their system, any number of the forwards can be moved around to fill in a different role on a different line as needed. The Bs will likely go with Marchand-Bergeron-Seguin, Lucic-Krejci-Peverley, Pouliot-Kelly-Rolston, and Caron/Paille-Campbell-Thornton to start. Lucic has been moving like an Arctic bison lately and should be a force out there because he’s not ailing this year. But if that line is struggling to get going, Claude shouldn’t hesitate to slide Seguin into Peverley’s spot because in their brief time together this year, Krejci and Seguin made some great things happen. Not to mention, you’re not exactly handicapping the Bergeron line by throwing the speedy, versatile Peverley on his wing. After the chemistry the third line showed in the last month or so, expect them to stay intact as long as they’re defensively responsible and offensively taking advantage of the lower D pairs of the Caps. The only question mark on the fourth line is whether Claude goes with PK specialist Dan Paille or the less experienced but more offensive Jordan Caron to fill out the wing. Either way, this is a hard-working group of forwards that has ample parts grit and skill. Scoring shouldn’t be a problem for this team.
The Caps are a bit more top-heavy on offense, featuring the wildly talented trio of Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Ovechkin. They also have an impressive collection of grit that can’t be overlooked in Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, and Matt Hendricks (the guy the Bs traded for Boychuk). They also have grizzled vet Mike Knuble waiting in the wings. Though Ward had a shitty year, he was a monster in the playoffs for Nashville last year so the Bs might want to keep an eye on him around the net. Backstrom recently returned from concussion so he’s likely not playing at a 100% right now. Overall, a pretty good crop of forwards that can make you pay if you stop skating or play stupid. Advantage: Neither.
After being the whipping boy of Boston coaches for several years, Claude is currently the cock of the walk after his system paid off and he was rewarded with a Cup win last June. And that win gave him more confidence and balls as a coach as his quick trigger finger with goalies and line changes will attest. Despite his folksy demeanor before the cameras, Claude is an old-school, take-no-shit coach that has his team buying in once again. And why wouldn’t they after last year?
On the other bench is Claude’s former Quebec Nordiques teammate, the once-dastardly Dale Hunter. After coaching juniors for several years, the Caps brought in Hunter to replace BBQ Bruce Boudreau 22 games into the season. It took awhile for his team to get on the same page but they were a lot more cohesive in March than they were in December. Still, Hunter only has 60 games of NHL coaching experience; Claude has almost 600 more games than that. Oh, and he has that Cup, too. Advantage: Bruins.
The Bruins need to just skate, be patient, stick to their system, and the scoring chances will come. Additionally, they need to fire away early, often, and from every angle to take of advantage of the butterflies Holtby will no doubt be sporting. They also need to make sure not to get goaded into any dopey retaliatory penalties that will give the Caps a chance to flex their ample power play muscles, even if they were only middle-of-the-pack during the regular season.
Forechecking Bruins have to come in hard on guys like Wideman and Green to force them into own-zone mistakes and tenderize them while they’re at it. Their D needs to make sure they simply did what they did last year: take away opportunities and just pound away every chance they get.
In a nutshell, the Bruins simply need to play Bruins hockey—play hard, physical hockey while taking advantage of opportunities and getting great goaltending. Sounds easy. They just need to go out and do it. But the Caps aren’t going to be pushovers and the Bs can’t get frustrated. It’ll help to get an early start so that D.C. doesn’t gain any early confidence (the Bs are just 1-3 in Claude’s first game of the last four playoffs). But this series is likely going to swing on the 24 square feet down by the goal lines. Even if Holtby turns in a respectable performance, the disparity is going to be too much for the Caps to overcome. Again. Prediction: Bruins in six.
Bonus gif of Burrows getting buried courtesy of @bubbaprog …