- James Murphy, Bruins reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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The regular season is over and the real season is set to begin. The Bruins (49-29-4, 102 points) will attempt to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings accomplished the feat in 1997 and '98.
The Bruins host the Washington Capitals (42-38-8, 92 points) in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals series that begins Thursday in Boston.
Although the Capitals didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the final full week of the season, they have the skill and potential to be a difficult first-round opponent. The deep and balanced attack of the Bruins, however, should prevail. Here’s our scouting report to show why the Bruins will win this series in six games:
Despite the fact that Tuukka Rask is likely to start the playoffs on the shelf due to the groin injury he suffered March 3, the Bruins still have the reigning Vezian Trophy winner Tim Thomas, who finished the season strong with a record of 35-19-1 with a 2.36 GAA and .920 save percentage and was looking like the Thomas opponents have grown to dread down the stretch. With his playoff experience and knowledge of what it takes to win a Stanley Cup, the Bruins have a huge edge in goaltending. The Capitals lost starter Tomas Vokoun for the season to a late-season groin injury suffered in the 4-3 shootout win over the Bruins on March 10, and will have to lean on back-up Michal Neuvirth (nine career playoff appearances) and rookie Braden Holtby (who has no NHL playoff experience).
The Capitals' blue line is built more like an offense, with many of their defensemen having the potential to be just as dangerous as a sniper or playmaker up front. But the flip side is that those defensemen aren’t as strong in their own end and will take risks that can lead to turnovers and odd-man rushes the other way. That’s why the Capitals allowed 2.76 goals against per game. While the Bruins had their share of turnovers during their midseason funk in January and February, they have one of the strongest defensive groups in the NHL. Of course, Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara is the leader on the blue line, but with the likes of Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference as a supporting cast and eight solid defensemen total, it’s no surprise the Bruins were the sixth-stingiest team in the NHL, allowing only 2.43 goals per game. With Thomas in goal, the B's are a very difficult team to score on.
The Capitals themselves will tell you they underachieved this season on offense, scoring fewer goals (2.66 per game) than they allowed, but there is no arguing the pure skill of Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and now the added depth they have in forwards Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson, Brooks laich and Joel Ward. For that reason, this forward group cannot be overlooked. They have the potential to catch fire in the playoffs, and when Backstrom is healthy they’re a different squad -- as witnessed when he returned at the end of the season and they clinched a playoff spot. On the other hand, the Bruins were the third-highest-scoring team in the NHL. With six 20-goal scorers, they have one of the most balanced attacks in the league and they’re also a very sound forward group defensively. This will probably be the most intriguing positional match-up in the series.
While he won’t be a Jack Adams Award winner or even candidate for coach of the year, Claude Julien deserves loads of credit for once again guiding this team through some murky waters and helping it overcome the challenges of being defending Stanley Cup champions. Julien has now led the Bruins to the playoffs in all five seasons he has been behind the Boston bench, and his even-keeled approach has them in position for a shot to repeat. On the Caps' bench, Dale Hunter took over the coaching reigns in late November after Bruce Boudreau was fired. The coaching change didn’t have the immediate impact the Caps were hoping for, as the team still stumbled through most of the season and barely made the playoffs. Hunter is entering his first playoff series as an NHL coach, so experience could be a huge factor here
Last season the Bruins were able to win the Stanley Cup despite having the worst power play for a Stanley Cup champion in NHL history. The power play has fared better this season, scoring at a 17.2 percent clip and ranked 11th in the NHL, but it still isn’t potent enough to be a major threat and the Bruins will rely on their strong 5-on-5 play to produce offense. The Capitals actually had a worse power play this season, scoring at a 16.7 percent clip and ranked 18th in the NHL. But with all the offensive skill they have on the blue line and up front, they get the nod here.
The penalty kill and strong defensive play have always been the bread and butter of Claude Julien’s teams here in Boston, and once again the team had a solid penalty kill this season with an 83.5 success rate and ranked 11th. The Capitals, meanwhile, were 21st on the penalty kill with an 81.6 success rate.
All Stanley Cup champions have a common edge over any opponent: experience and knowing what it takes to survive the mental and physical grind of the playoffs. With the Bruins having that and the Capitals proving to be playoff busts in recent seasons, the Bruins get the nod here. This Bruins core knows what it takes, and that will play a major role in this series.
Notable individual stats
Capitals vs. Bruins this season: Mathieu Perrault: 4 GP; 3 G-1 A-4 P; Marcus Johansson: 4 GP; 2 G-2 A-4 P; Michal Neuvirth: 1 GP; 1-0-0; 2.58 GAA; .905 save percentage
Recent playoff history
The Bruins have a 6-4 edge in these two teams' playoff history. The Capitals won the last series they played against the Bruins, taking the 1998 Eastern Conference quarterfinals series in six games and going on to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to Detroit. The other series was in 1990, when the Bruins swept the Caps in the Wales Conference finals before losing to the Oilers in the Stanley Cup finals.
13dJoe McDonald and Kyle Brasseur