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Saturday, April 7, 2012
Updated: April 10, 10:12 PM ET
First-round preview: Bruins-Caps

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

Now this is a rather interesting first-round series that you probably didn't envision way back in September, given the Capitals' dominance of the Southeast Division in recent years. But the season didn't play out the way either of these teams thought it might.

The Caps roared out of the gate, ran aground, fired their coach, stayed adrift and appeared ready to disappear from the playoff picture altogether before winning four of five down the stretch and jumping into the seventh seed.

The Bruins, meanwhile, endured the predictable Stanley Cup hangover, then tore through the middle part of the season before coming slightly unglued around the time netminder Tim Thomas went all political and snubbed the team's visit to the White House. But in recent weeks the Bruins have quietly regained their form entering the playoffs, playing some of their best hockey of the season.

"The last seven or eight games, I think the guys have really pulled their game together," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli told ESPN.com.

There's been more focus and better execution, "right down through our lineup," he said. "I'm pretty satisfied with where we are right now."

In a nutshell, this is a series about a Bruins team that learned from its past playoff failures and figured out how to win in the postseason, while the Capitals are still a team that seems doomed to repeat those failures over and over.


1. David and Goliath Between the Pipes: Let's start with what might be the biggest mismatch in this series. Thomas, for all his political meandering, has quieted most of the doubters by going on a 6-1-1 roll to close out the regular season. Even with Tuukka Rask's injury, Thomas should still be fairly well rested having appeared just twice in April.

"They've got the goalie back on track," said one Eastern-based scout.

If Thomas can replicate his heroics of last spring, the Bruins will be mighty tough to stop. The Bruins' position is in stark contrast to the situation in which the Caps find themselves. With veteran Tomas Vokoun out with a groin injury and last year's playoff starter, Michal Neuvirth, on the mend after suffering a lower body injury, it looks like the Game 1 start will go to rookie Braden Holtby. Holtby has been solid in relief this season, going 4-2-1, including a win in New York on Saturday that denied the Rangers the Presidents' Trophy. He is 14-4-3 with three shutouts in his NHL career but is without any playoff experience at the NHL level. Still, the 22-year-old has proved himself to be remarkably poised and confident in his brief exposure to NHL play. If he can summon his inner Ken Dryden, this series could be closer than most expect.

2. Like a Wave: When the Bruins are at their best, they are a relentless bunch, attacking from all four lines. By the time the final rolled around last June, the Bruins simply wore down the Vancouver Canucks, and the same could be said about Tampa, Philadelphia and Montreal in earlier rounds. While the personnel has changed somewhat, the team's style and personality remains exactly the same, and to beat the Bruins, a team must be willing and capable of standing up to that kind of assault.

"They wear you down. They beat you up," a scout said.

The B's have scored six or more goals 13 times this season and are the league's top-scoring team at five-on-five. They boast six 20-goal scorers, the most of any team in the league. They are 32-0 when leading after two periods and enjoy a plus-42 goal differential in the third period, ranking sixth in the league and third in the East behind the Rangers and Pittsburgh.

"I just have a lot of respect for the structure they have under [coach] Claude Julien," another top team executive told ESPN.com.

The Capitals have displayed an alarming lack of scoring depth for most of the season, so they'll be at a disadvantage every third shift if they don't get similar production. As one Eastern Conference executive pointed out when you look at past Cup champs -- Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Detroit -- they all featured that kind of offensive depth up front.

"When they get rolling, they roll," the executive said of the Bruins.

3. Missing Mark? A number of scouts and NHL executives told ESPN.com they wonder about the Bruins' ability to fill the void created by the departure of veteran Mark Recchi. Recchi was a crucial presence for a Bruins team that started the playoffs with two home losses to Montreal and was down 2-0 and 3-2 in the finals to Vancouver. He was also a mentor to top forward Patrice Bergeron.

"They don't have that this year," one scout said.

Another Eastern Conference executive wondered if guys such as Brian Rolston, who has been terrific since coming over from the New York Islanders at the trade deadline, and Benoit Pouliot, the other forward who wasn't with the squad last spring, will fill the void created by the departure of Recchi and Michael Ryder, who had eight goals, including two game winners last spring. Picking up the slack offensively will be important, especially given that last year's playoff scoring hero, Nathan Horton, isn't going to be available due to injury.

Rolston's contributions (14 points in his past 12 games) to the team's third line and the power play have been "very significant," Chiarelli said. "Brian's been really good for us. He's found his legs."

4. Backstrom Back: If there is one wild card in this series, it is the return to action of Caps top center Nicklas Backstrom. Laid low by a concussion courtesy of a nasty elbow to the head by Rene Bourque, Backstrom missed three months of action. He played in the Caps' final four games of the regular season, picking up his first points -- a goal and an assist -- in the season finale against the Rangers. Can he help boost Washington's 18th-ranked power play? Undoubtedly. And its 20th ranked penalty kill, too. But what are the realistic expectations for a player who has missed so much time with such a serious injury? That is the 64-dollar question, and the answer will speak volumes about how this series will play out.

5. Not-so-great Expectations: For the past four years, the Washington Capitals have borne significant expectations as they've entered the playoffs. And each year they've found a way to knuckle under to those pressures. They lost a Game 7 at home to Philadelphia in 2008, blew a 2-0 series lead to Pittsburgh in the second round in 2009, were upended in the first round by eighth seed Montreal in 2010 and were swept by Tampa in the second round a year ago.

Does playing the significant underdog role against a Boston squad that finished the regular season with 10 more points allow the Caps to play with more emotional freedom? Certainly top players like Mike Green, Backstrom and captain Alex Ovechkin have not fared well under the spotlight of expectation in the playoffs. It's a nice theory if it works out that way. But that theory will run headlong into the fact this is a Bruins team that doesn't just know how to win but how to win it all. The one important lesson his team learned last spring, Chiarelli said, "is our ability to avoid panic situations." Unfortunately for the Caps, "panic" has been their mantra the past few springs.


• Chara-Seidenberg versus Ovechkin-Brouwer-Laich: Look for Julien to try to get Zdeno Chara and defense partner Dennis Seidenberg, one of the most underrated defenders in the league, on the ice as much as possible against the Caps' top line of Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich. For all the criticism of the Caps' captain, Ovechkin still finished fifth in the league with 38 goals, and had 11 assists in his last 10 games. Chara, of course, is a game changer for the Bruins on the back end. He logs 25 minutes a night and has seen his own offensive numbers rise this season, something that should see the former Norris Trophy winner (and a finalist last year) return to the final ballot come awards night. If the Caps' big line can't get going against Chara and company, this could be over in a hurry.


• Washington's Alexander Semin: There could hardly be a streakier player in the league than Semin. The gifted Caps winger has been on a tear recently, with 10 points in his past nine games. Playing alongside the recently recovered Backstrom and Mathieu Perreault, Semin gives the Caps the kind of scoring threat from the second line that will be crucial to any playoff success. The problem is that Semin's history is to fade to black whenever the going gets tough come playoff time. If he can reverse that trend, the Caps' chances of pulling off an upset go up exponentially.

• Boston's Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand: It's been a breakout year for young stars Seguin and Marchand, who combined for 57 goals. But one scout noted that some of the young Bruins forwards "have a tendency to drift in and out," and the pressure on Marchand and Seguin to not just produce but produce consistently this spring is going to be significant. Seguin, of course, was a healthy scratch to start the playoffs a year ago and then responded well when introduced into the lineup. Marchand had trouble controlling his emotions early in the postseason but was the best skater on the ice for the Bruins during the final. This season, Seguin led the Bruins in scoring, playing mostly with Bergeron and Marchand, becoming the youngest player to lead the B's in scoring at just over 20 years of age. If they can keep their heads this spring, they will increase the odds of a repeat.


• The Bruins have too much and the Caps don't have enough, which leads us to conclude that the Bruins will move along. Bruins in 6.