On Hockey: Capitals have reason for optimism


Nicklas Backstrom, center, and New York’s Artem Anisimov, right, battle for the puck. Backstrom’s return has the Capitals excited about their postseason prospects. (Nick Laham/GETTY IMAGES)
April 8, 2012

The defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins captured the Northeast Division by a comfortable 10-point margin, capped the regular season on an impressive 9-2-1 run and finished tied for second in goals scored with 3.17 per game.

They’re led by the game’s most complete defenseman, Zdeno Chara, a 6-foot-9 behemoth of a man who’s as likely to deliver a crushing body check as a critical power-play goal. Their goalie, Tim Thomas, remains among the game’s elite despite an uneven second half. And they boast a deep and potent forward corps led by Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Milan Lucic, all 60-point producers.

The Bruins’ regular season results and lineup are enough to cause hopeful Capitals fans to break out in hives.

But after Saturday’s 4-1 thumping of the Atlantic Division champion New York Rangers, the prevailing sentiment in the Capitals’ dressing room at Madison Square Garden was one of confidence and cautious optimism.

“It all goes out the window when it comes to playoffs,” veteran forward Brooks Laich said. “It’s a new season.”

Captain Alex Ovechkin added: “It doesn’t matter which place you are in the [regular] season. In the playoffs, it’s a different season. It’s different hockey. Every mistake can cost you a series and every mistake can cost you a game. In the playoffs, it’s [the] top 16 teams in the league battle for one goal — the Cup — so it doesn’t matter.”

If any team can appreciate the disconnect between regular season results and postseason prosperity, it’s Washington. In each of the past four seasons, in fact, they have been bounced by a lower seed.

Beginning Thursday, however, the seventh-seeded Capitals will be the underdog when they face the No. 2 Bruins at TD Garden.

Ovechkin praised Boston’s experience, saying, “They are the Stanley Cup champions. They know how to play in the playoffs. They are a hard team to play against.”

Laich lauded their balance, adding: “Very good team. Lot of respect for them. They play both ends of the ice, probably as well as anybody. They’re big. Their defense is solid. They’ve got three, even four, lines that can score.”

On paper, Boston is the better team. But playoff hockey is contested on a 200- by 85-foot sheet of ice, not a notepad.

Actually, for almost every factor supporting a Bruins romp, there’s another that suggests the talented-yet-underachieving Capitals might be primed to pull off an upset.

Here are five reasons the improbable could happen:

●After deciding to stand pat at February’s trade deadline, General Manager George McPhee told reporters, “We can beat anybody in this conference” if Nicklas Backstrom recovered from a concussion. The 24-year-old, world-class playmaker returned four games ago, and after a posting a goal and assist against the Rangers, he finally resembled the game-changer he was prior to the injury.

●Most questions about goaltending will focus on the inexperience of Capitals rookie Braden Holtby, the presumed Game 1 starter because of injuries to veterans Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. But it must be noted that Thomas has endured his share of struggles. Although he’s yielded two or fewer goals in seven of his last eight starts, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner is only three weeks removed from a 3-5-0 stretch during which he posted .842 save percentage and 4.06 goals against average. “We’re stuck,” Thomas said at the time. “I don’t have answers.”

●History suggests that the rigors of last year’s run will catch up to the Bruins. The question is when. No team has repeated since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 and, in fact, only one of the past five champions even got the opportunity (the 2009 Red Wings fell in the finals).

●Under Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals struggled to adapt their high-octane style of play to the more conservative, tight-checking, defense-first strategies teams employ in the playoffs. That’s no longer an issue. They’ve been trapping and grinding out low-scoring games under Coach Dale Hunter for four months now. No adjustment will be needed.

●This one is the hardest to quantify, but every team in the NHL has one or more opponents it simply doesn’t “match up” well against. For the Bruins, that team might be Washington. The Capitals won three of the four meetings this season, including the past two in Boston. In each of the contests at TD Garden, the Capitals jumped out to 2-0 leads.

Optimistic? Sure it is. But who believed the Montreal Canadiens had a chance in 2010? Or that the Tampa Bay Lightning had one in the semifinals last spring?

It’s indeed a new season — and it’s one the Capitals are excited to embrace.

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