There’s no lack of subplots in the Capitals’ first-round series against the Boston Bruins, which kicks off with Game 1 Thursday at TD Garden. With only one more day of practice before the puck drops on this Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup, here are some of the biggest storylines to watch.
How will Braden Holtby hold up in his first foray into the Stanley Cup playoffs? Will Tim Thomas regain his Conn Smythe and Vezina winning ways from the Bruins’ run last spring? Will Michal Neuvirth or Tomas Vokoun manage to get healthy and be a factor in the first round? Is your head spinning yet?
Goaltending obviously carries a lot of weight in any series, but given the unproven status of Holtby, injury questions for Washington and so on, there’s even more intrigue here.
On paper, the Bruins certainly have an edge with Thomas, an experienced four-time all-star, but they aren’t prepared to write off Washington or Holtby. Boston knows that any goaltender, even a young one, has the potential to get hot and propel a team.
“I know that it looks like at this point they’re going to have a young goalie playing, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Thomas said earlier this week. “You can’t take that for granted. Sometimes those kids can stand on their heads in those situations for a number of reasons – but one of them is that they never expected to be there, so they don’t have that mental pressure.”
While the Capitals’ depth in net is being tested – with Neuvirth and Vokoun hurt, Dany Sabourin, who hasn’t appeared in an NHL game since 2009, is Holtby’s backup – don’t forget the Bruins aren’t completely healthy, either. AHLer Anton Khudobin will be Thomas’s backup in the early going of the postseason while Tuukka Rask continues to rehab a groin injury.
The Bruins are the only team in the NHL to have six players with 20 or more goals this season. They are: Tyler Seguin (29), Patrice Bergeron (22), David Krejci (23), Milan Lucic (26), Brad Marchand (28) and Chris Kelly (20).
That group includes five of their top six forwards and their third line center (Kelly). The problem the Bruins pose to most opponents isn’t simply those top two lines, but that Coach Claude Julien tends to roll all four of his lines consistently. They can all score and they are all very adept at wearing other teams down.
“I think that’s the makeup of a very good team – being able to keep throwing out those lines,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We’ve had lots of times where one line is going, two lines are going, or all four lines. For us it’s got to be consistent hockey from everybody.... There’s always days where you don’t feel that good and you hope you don’t have those days in the playoffs. It’s matching their consistency.”
In contrast to Julien’s style, Coach Dale Hunter has a tendency to lean on his best players – the top two lines and top four defensemen – heavily. He likes to match lines as well as defensive pairings as much as possible both home and, when the situation presents itself, on the road.
The aggressive matching can sometimes allow opposing coaches to dictate which players the Capitals put on the ice. It’s happened a few times this season, most notably against Winnipeg on March 23 and Philadelphia on March 4, and it’s something that the Bruins are keenly aware of.
“I think that plays to Claude [Julien’s] strength because he can respond, mix the lines a little bit,” Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli said on a conference call. “I think our depth through the forward position allows us to mix the lines and throw a hard matcher off. So, I think, you’ll see some of those games too within the game.”
Alex Ovechkin and Zdeno Chara enjoy playing against each other. They both said as much this week.
“It’s a great battle between me and him. I think he’s top D in the league,” Ovechkin said. “I love playing against him, especially when it’s going to be playoffs. It’s going to be fun.”
Said Chara: “It’s something that motivates me. It’s something that I enjoy, competing against the best players.”
Now, no two players will win a series alone, but it’s tough to doubt that whoever wins that battle will offer a significant boost to his team’s efforts. The other player and squad will be looking for ways to combat the other, whether it’s the Bruins trying to keep Ovechkin at bay or the Capitals trying to spark the left wing’s offense.
Back on Feb. 27, General Manager George McPhee said if the injured Nicklas Backstrom were to return to the lineup, Washington “can beat anybody in this conference.”
Backstrom played the final four regular-season games after he was sidelined for 40 games and nearly three months with a concussion after absorbing an elbow to the head from Rene Bourque. The Swedish center has been critical of his performance so far, but his two-point showing in the regular-season finale against the New York Rangers was his best outing since rejoining the team.
“It’s good sign for us and bad sign for different teams,” Ovechkin said after Washington’s 4-1 win against New York. “I think he’s move well. He was sharp today, control the puck well. It’s good thing to see he went to the battle and nothing serious happened. For him mentally it’s very important and for us as well.”
If Backstrom, who didn’t appear in any of the four regular-season games against Boston, truly does round into his pre-concussion form, it will add another dimension to the Capitals’ offense. Backstrom at his best is an elite-level playmaker, both at even strength and on the power play. If he were to get on a roll, the rest of the offense likely would follow.
How physical will the Bruins be — and can the Capitals match it?
Boston’s big, bad reputation and style of play is built upon their desire to steamroll teams. They never hesitate to finish checks, wear opponents down and there is plenty of grit throughout their lineup from the first line on down.
The Capitals don’t enter the series with that same type of well-established reputation behind them. But everything changes tempo and intensity in the playoffs, and the Washington players have little doubt that they can hold their own against the Bruins.
“We’re not that small either,” Jason Chimera said. “We have pretty big guys so it’s not like we’re a small team. We’re not really afraid of physical play.”
If Washington can match or set its own physical tone against the Bruins it will certainly help. While the Capitals don’t want to take careless penalties they need to ensure that they don’t get too caught up in Boston’s rough-and-tumble style while still standing up for themselves.
“You could see how Vancouver got caught up in it in the [Stanley Cup final] last year,” Troy Brouwer said. “That’s just the style of game they play, they try to bring you in and sometimes they can be successful at it. For us we’ve got some guys, they can hold their own. We’ll push back. Don’t think we’re going to lay down by any means.”
More on the Capitals:
— First-round playoff schedule
— Are the playoffs Joel Ward Time?
— Schultz ready if Caps call on him
— Does regular-season matchup matter?
— Everybody’s picking the Bruins to win