The big bad Boston Bruins have their eyes set on becoming the first Stanley Cup champions to defend their title since Detroit in 1998, and tonight they launch that campaign against a Washington Capitals squad which has gone through fits & starts just to make the playoffs. To use the old Barry Trotz analogy, the Caps have been like watching an entire art class of Rembrandts being handed rollers and asked to paint a house.
The Boston Bruins have been waiting for the playoffs to really kick things into gear, as after you've won the whole thing I can imagine it's difficult to maintain a high level of motivation across the 82-game regular season. While they allowed the Ottawa Senators to hang with them for a good chunk of the schedule, eventually the Bruins pulled away to take the Northeast Division by 10 points.
Once again, their captain is in the middle of the Norris Trophy debate, and should at least make the trip to Las Vegas this summer as a finalist:
|2011 - Zdeno Chara||79||12||40||52||+33||86||8||0||0||224||5.4|
Over at Stanley Cup of Chowder, they see a major advantage for the Bruins at forward:
So let's get down to facts. Despite the absence of Nathan Horton the Bruins will enter the post season with the third highest-scoring offense and six 20 goal scorers on the roster, the only team in the league who can boast that. Depth, as it always has been under GM Peter Chiarelli, will be the key.
While the Capitals have the leagues' fifth highest goal scorer in Ovechkin, only the inconsistent Semin has more than 20 goals on the season. And while Backstrom certainly looks to be getting back in sync he is still coming off a major concussion.
I've said it often around these parts, but I think the origin of the Caps' downfall from being an Eastern Conference power began with the ruminating over their 2010 playoff loss to Montreal. Frustrated by a collapsing defense and an absurdly hot goaltender, the Capitals decided to devote themselves to a new defensive style of hockey, and haven't been the same since.
Although, it takes a pretty interesting perspective to have offensive numbers like this considered an "off year":
|2011 - Alex Ovechkin||78||38||27||65||-8||26||13||0||3||303||12.5|
The great hope for Washington lies in the return of star center Nicklas Backstrom, who missed months with a concussion. He's a point-per-game player who lifts the overall team and in particular ignites Ovechkin, and it's possible that the Caps of today are a more potent team than their whole-season results otherwise indicate.
Over at Japers Rink there's an argument to be made that now that the Caps aren't considered favorites, the lack of pressure may prove to be a tremendous benefit:
The lack of expectations is precisely why I have hope for this team, this spring, to make a deep run. We've seen the foundational players of the Caps, or at least many of them, struggle over the last two seasons with lofty predictions, having been described as "mentally fragile." This time around, there seems to be far less pressure to win even the first round, let alone the Holy Grail. With a sub-par season, a top center trying to return to form post-concussion, a goalie with no NHL playoff experience, an NHL-rookie coach whose methods have been questioned more than any other Caps' coach since Bruce Cassidy, starting on the road against the juggernaut, defending Cup champs seems an insurmountable task, all the makings of a short series. But maybe this team taking the ice in a hostile TD Garden tonight with "nothing to lose" is just the environment they need.
As for the OTF predictions...
Despite Dale Hunter's machinations, I think the Capitals are a better team than their record and regular season play indicates. Of course, the Bruins might be the league's deepest team, and are defending their title. Bad draw for Washington. Bruins in 7.
This has all the makings of a great series. The Bruins are one of the best teams in the East, obviously, while the Caps have been playing well lately after underwhelming for most of the season. Alex Ovechkin also looks to be finally getting back into his form. But please, spare us the Tim Thomas/Washington D.C. jokes. Bruins in 7.
The Caps are horrible this year (relatively speaking). They were lucky to limp into the playoffs at all this year, but that doesn't mean they have nothing to prove. They'll be a small handful for the Bruins, but I don't think they have what it takes to get past the defending champs. Bruins in 6.
The return of Nicklas Backstrom adds a real sense of possibility to Washington's hopes, but the Caps have so many more questions than answers these days. The Bruins, on the other hand, are a wrecking ball of a team which has its mind set on being the first repeat Stanley Cup champion in 14 years. Bruins in 5.