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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 04/11/2012

Intel on the Bruins: Tim Thomas distraction, the ‘X-factor’ and more

While the Capitals and Bruins get ready to do battle tomorrow, the team beat writers are still keeping it friendly. So friendly, in fact, that we swapped some intel to get ready for Game 1. The Post’s Tarik El-Bashir answered seven questions on the Caps for NESN.com, and in return Bruins reporter Douglas Flynn answered seven questions for us.

Check out Tarik’s answers on the Caps right here.

What’s going on with the injured Bruins? We know Nathan Horton is out, but what about Adam McQuaid, Johnny Boychuk and Tuukka Rask? If McQuaid is unable to play and Boychuk is skating with one healthy leg, how does that affect the Bruins’ approach?

Flynn: The Bruins have been pretty tight-lipped about their injuries now that the postseason has arrived, listing all three simply as “day-to-day.” But even without Claude Julien revealing much, it appears that Boychuk will be ready to start the series, Rask might be and McQuaid looks doubtful at this point.

McQuaid has not skated or practiced since leaving last Thursday’s game in Ottawa when he “didn’t feel right.” That was his first game back after missing three following Jason Chimera’s hit in the last meeting between these clubs on March 29. The Bruins stated after that game that McQuaid did not suffer a concussion, but he is no longer listed as being out with an eye injury (he needed 18 stitches to close a cut around his eye) as the injury is now being labeled with the more ambiguous “upper body” designation.

Boychuk and Rask did practice Monday and Tuesday. Boychuk didn’t appear limited in the workouts and even participated in battle drills on Monday, and was right back out there on Tuesday with no setbacks. He might not be completely healed from the mild left knee sprain he suffered April 3, but he hasn’t appeared hobbled in practice and should be close to his normal self.

The Bruins shouldn’t have to alter their approach with the injuries. Losing McQuaid’s physical presence will hurt, but that’s something Boston has in abundance with Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Boychuk and Greg Zanon. Zanon and Mike Mottau were added at the trade deadline for exactly this reason, and the veteran depth they provide should make for a pretty seamless transition. Zanon had already moved into a top-six role, so it is actually Joe Corvo who will likely step back into the lineup if McQuaid can’t go, and Capitals fans should be somewhat familiar with him from brief stint in Washington a couple years ago.


(Ann Heisenfelt - AP)
If there’s any place in America that appreciates a good conspiracy theory, it’s Washington D.C. So is there any connection between Tim Thomas’s midseason slump and his infamous decision to decline President Obama’s invitation to be honored along with his teammates at the White House in January?

Flynn: There’s no way to know for certain, but personally I do believe that the distraction Thomas caused did have an impact on both his own poor play and the team’s midseason swoon, though it is important to note that both trends were already beginning before the White House incident. Thomas’ struggles really began on New Year’s Eve with a 4-2 loss in Dallas, and it wasn’t until St. Patrick’s Day that he fully snapped out of it. He led Boston to a 3-2 shootout win over Philly that day and was close to his old self for the rest of the way. He did not allow more than three goals in any of his first 22 games before that Dallas loss, but then gave up four or more eight times in 28 appearances before St. Patty’s, plus three goals in 20 minutes before being pulled against Pittsburgh and two in 19 minutes against Tampa Bay. Including that Philly game, he finished the season with a 6-1-1 record, allowing three goals just once in that span.

How much of a factor the White House controversy was in contributing to Thomas’ slump and the team’s struggles is impossible to determine, but it certainly didn’t help and was an unnecessary distraction. It will be interesting to see if facing Washington now will affect him again. The questions about the controversy will no doubt be raised plenty of times during the series, and he already stormed out of a media scrum when asked about it after Monday’s practice.

No NHL team has repeated as Stanley Cup champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. In fact, since the lockout, only two defending champions have advanced beyond the quarterfinals (2009 Red Wings). Is there any concern that the Bruins enter the postseason running on fumes?

Flynn: In my opinion, the Stanley Cup is the toughest championship in sports to defend. The grueling nature of surviving the gauntlet of four best-of-seven series with increasing intensity takes so much out of a team that it is often difficult to muster that effort again the next year after a short offseason and an 82-game regular season when every opponent you face if fired up for a chance to knock off the champs.

All that clearly weighed on the Bruins when they came out of the gates with a sluggish 3-7-0 start in October. They shook off that Stanley Cup hangover to be the most dominant team in the league from the start of November through mid-January before the midseason malaise hit. But the Bruins finished strong, going 9-2-1 in their final 12 games to lock down the second seed in the East. If they hadn’t snapped out of their funk so forcefully in the final few weeks of the season I would be a lot more concerned. But going into the playoffs, the Bruins don’t look like a team running on fumes. They look focused and determined, and the experience and confidence gained in last year’s run has them primed to buck the recent trend and capable of making another deep run.


The Bruins' Chris Kelly and the Capitals' Jason Chimera battle for the puck. (Michael Dwyer - AP)
Everyone knows the effect stars like Zdeno Chara and Thomas can have on a game and a series. Who are some of the Bruins’ lesser lights who might have an effect on the outcome? An X-factor (or two), if you will.

Flynn: After last year’s Cup run there aren’t too many secret weapons left. Chris Kelly built off his impressive playoff performance with a career-high 20 goals. Playing with offseason pickup Benoit Pouliot and deadline acquisition Brian Rolston, he gave the Bruins a huge boost down the stretch with that third line providing consistent scoring, combining for 13 goals and 34 points in their last 12 games together (Rolston was rested in the regular-season finale). That line will need to come up big again to give the Bruins the balanced attack that keys their offense.

They will also need balance on defense. Last year the Bruins were able to put Chara and Seidenberg together as a dominant shutdown pair because Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk were so good on the second pairing. That duo will need a repeat performance on the blue line for Boston to go deep again.

Every playoff series has a “game within the game,” a critical matchup or three that could sway things one way or another. The big one – Chara vs. Alex Ovechkin – is obvious and significant. Is there another matchup the Bruins expect to be key?

With the Capitals featuring two lines with such strong offensive ability, the Bruins will definitely have more matchups to worry about than just Chara-Ovechkin. Even if Chara can hold Ovechkin in check, that won’t be enough unless Ference and Boychuk can also contain Nicklas Backstrom and Co.

That responsibility won’t fall to the defensemen alone though. The real key could be the help they get from the forwards. The Bergeron line has been outstanding in that regard, with Selke candidate Patrice Bergeron an NHL-best plus-36, Tyler Seguin plus-34 and Brad Marchand plus-31. They will likely be out opposite Ovechkin almost as much as Chara and Seidenberg. But the Bruins will need the line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Rich Peverley to help shut down Backstrom. Krejci was a disappointing minus-5 on the season and Lucic just plus-7. They went through too many stretches where they gave up as many goals as they produced, and will need to be much better than that in this series.

After a disappointing rookie season, Tyler Seguin broke out in 2011-12, becoming the youngest player in franchise history to lead the team in scoring with 29 goals and 67 points. What is the 20-year-old’s ceiling? Can he blossom into a 100-point producer?

Flynn: Seguin definitely has the potential to put up those kinds of numbers, but the century mark is no small feat in today’s game. Only Evgeni Malkin topped it in the entire league this year, and as impressive as Seguin’s sophomore campaign was, he still finished barely two-thirds of the way to 100.

Claude Julien’s system stresses defensive responsibility and a balanced attack. While there is freedom for some offensive creativity, it’s hard to see anyone really having that kind of monster offensive season with the way Boston forwards need to get back on defense and all four lines are rolled regularly. Seguin has immense potential and should be a legitimate superstar in the coming years, but his numbers may stay slightly below some of the other elite performers because of the system he plays in. Of course, if that system keeps producing Cups, no one, not even Seguin, should complain about that.

Where did the Bruins rank on Boston’s crowded (and successful) sports scene before winning the Stanley Cup? And where do they rank now?

Flynn: The Bruins had bottomed out midway through the past decade, nearly falling off the Boston sports radar completely after the lockout, back-to-back last-place finishes and the widely panned Joe Thornton trade. But they were already steadily climbing back to relevancy in recent years even before the Cup run as Julien guided them back to the playoffs and out of first round for the first time in a decade in 2009. The disastrous loss to Philadelphia after blowing a 3-0 series lead in 2010 threatened to erase all that progress, but the Bruins used that painful loss to fuel last year’s turnaround and the fans stuck with them. The Bruins sold out every game last year even before the Cup run, and did it again this season, the first consecutive seasons of sellouts since the glory days of the Orr era in the early 70s.

The Bruins are a big deal in Boston now. They certainly have surpassed the Celtics, and with the Red Sox’ epic collapse in September and slow start to this season, plus the Patriots’ losing to the Giants again in the Super Bowl, the B’s might just be the hottest ticket in town right now. But while they’re the team of the moment, Boston is still first and foremost a Red Sox town and the NFL is king everywhere in the nation, so the Pats remain a powerhouse. In the big picture, the Bruins probably will remain behind those two for the long term. But considering the fan bases for those franchises, just forcing their way into the same frame is quite an accomplishment, and the Bruins are the ones in focus right now.

For more on the Bruins, check out Douglas Flynn’s story archive over at NENS.com.

By Post Sports Editors  |  12:00 PM ET, 04/11/2012

 
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