On Thursday the Washington Capitals will embark on their 23rd post-season journey with the aim of winning a Stanley Cup. This year marks the fifth consecutive trip to the playoffs for the Caps and if anything, this one resembles the first one in this five-year run more than the others.
In the last three post-seasons the Caps were expected to do well; in the last two they were on the short list of favorites to play in the finals. They and their fans were disappointed. But in the first trip in this five-year run, in 2008, the Caps were a club that qualified late (Game 82) and were not expected to do much damage once they got there, where of course they did not, losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in a seven-game series.
The Caps find themselves in a similar situation as they prepare for round one of the 2012 Stanley Cup tournament. They clinched a playoff spot in their penultimate game of the regular season after having been given up for dead when they lost late-season games to Buffalo and Tampa Bay. They are a playoff team without necessarily having the “look” of a playoff team.
And just as they were in 2008, when the Capitals faced the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, they find themselves pitted against a traditional powerhouse in the Boston Bruins, owners of the second best record in the Eastern Conference this season but perhaps more important, defenders of the Stanley Cup. If a “challenge” is merely an “opportunity” spelled differently, the Caps have quite an opportunity before them.
The View from 30,000 Feet
If you stand up the Caps’ season numbers next to those of the Bruins, you are going to be hard-pressed to find a reason to think the Caps can be competitive in this series. Boston won more games, won more games in regulation plus overtime, finished with ten more standings points, and at no time after November 19th, when the Bruins passed the Caps in the standings, did the teams find their relative positions reversed over the rest of the regular season. Here is how the teams stack up against one another:
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Boston has a healthy ranking advantage in every high-level number you care to use for comparison. While the consistency of Boston’s ranking advantages doesn’t quite hold up when records are broken down into home and road components, the fact remains that while the Caps might be a very good home team, the Bruins are an excellent road team. No team won more road games this season than Boston (Philadelphia also won 25 games as a visitor).
However, if you look close, there are cracks in that black-and-gold façade. Most notably, there is that ten-game winning streak Boston put up this season. It was accomplished in Games 11-20 of the regular season. In fact, “streak” was the defining characteristic of Bruins hockey in the 2011 portion of the season. In addition to the ten-game streak, Boston had a four-game winning streak (Games 22-25) and a seven game-winning streak (Games 28-34) before the champagne corks were popped on New Year’s Eve. In fact, since December 28th, when their seven-game winning streak ended, the Bruins are 25-20-3. The Caps are 24-17-6 since that date.
For the Boston Bruins, the word that describes their offense is “balance.” The Bruins have six players with 20 or more goals, 20 players with at least ten points, and 16 different players with at least one game-winning goal. As a team the Bruins posted four or more goals in a game 31 times (not including shootout goals). Only Pittsburgh recorded more wins by three or more goals, and no team had more third period goals than the Bruins. This is a team that uses perhaps the most scoring depth in the league to relentlessly wear down opponents.
If there is a word to describe the Washington Capitals offense it is “more,” as in “we would have expected more.” The Caps finished 14th in the league in scoring, not where one might have expected a team with Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green to finish. One might explain this away as a product of injuries to Backstrom and Green, and folks would have a point. In 229 combined man-games this season, the “core four” had 76 goals (0.33/game). In 2010-2011 these same four players had 86 goals in 270 man-games (0.32/game). Of course, both years are a far cry from the levels of production they had when they were the “Young Guns.” For example, in 2009-2010, these four managed 142 goals in a combined 302 man-games (0.47 goals/game).
The Caps did get some pleasant surprises, most notably Mathieu Perreault, who had 16 goals in 64 games, including a hat trick against the Bruins on January 24th in a 5-3 win. On the other side, the Caps got a combined 16 goals from Mike Knuble, Joel Ward, and Jeff Halpern, all three of whom were either frequent healthy scratches or had their minutes reduced over long stretches this season.
Being able to wear teams down bears dividends at the other end of the rink. The Bruins exhibit a certain balance with respect to their pattern of goals allowed – 67 in the first periods of games, 65 in the second period, and 66 in the third period. As to that third period number, it was seventh best in the league. And the Bruins allowed only one goal in overtime this season (to the Rangers in a 3-2 loss on January 21st). But the Bruins have a certain tidiness about their goals allowed that could be exploited, too. They do not allow shorthanded goals (one, fewest in the league). They do not allow much in the way of empty net goals (six) or power play goals (43). But Boston has allowed only four fewer goals this season at 5-on-5 (146) than the Caps (150). Given reputations, one would have expected that difference to be bigger.
As for the Caps, a team that has undergone a personality change to be more defensively responsible might be expected to be ranked higher than 21st in goals allowed per game. They allowed four or more goals 28 times this season, 17 times on the road. Part of the problem has been a curious inability to stop opponents in the second period. Only three teams allowed more than the 85 goals allowed by the Caps in the middle frame this season. What is going to complicate the problem for the Caps in this series is being able to cope with the Bruins’ scoring depth, especially at forward. John Carlson and Karl Alzner have been reunited of late and could serve to be as close to a shutdown pair as the Caps have. They showed that ability in 2010-2011, but this year Carlson (minus-15, fourth most goals scored against while on ice among defensemen, most giveaways among defensemen) has had his problems in his sophomore season. Given the Bruins' depth, the Caps have to get solid play from the other two pairs as well, and that means avoiding mistakes and turnovers. That is going to shine a bright light on Dennis Wideman, who tied for ninth most giveaways among defensemen. It is here we have to point out that one of the defensemen with whom he was tied was Zdeno Chara.
Remember this number when the Bruins skate onto the ice at Verizon Center for Game 3…
Only two teams had fewer power play opportunities on the road this season than the Bruins. That inability to draw the man advantage worked for the Caps this season as the Bruins managed a single power play goal in five chances in two games at Verizon Center. When allowing opponents three or fewer power play opportunities at home this season, the Caps were 15-6-3 (11-5-1 in other games at home).
On the other hand, the Caps do not have the most explosive power play of their own on the road. In their last 22 road games of the regular season Washington was 9-for-59 on the power play (15.3 percent), but that includes a 3-for-4 performance in Detroit on March 19th. Otherwise, the Caps performed at a 10.9 percent clip over that span of games. The Caps were 10-6-0 in road games in which they scored at least one power play goal, 6-15-4 when they did not.
The Season Series
There is a “canary in the coal mine” element to the season series in that the Caps did not face the Bruins in the 2011 portion of the season when Boston was running off ten-, seven-, and four-game winning streaks on their way to a 24-10-1 record by New Year’s Day. The teams did not face one another until January 24th, and in the four games played starting on that date the Caps won three. The entire season series was played by the Caps against a team that might be more representative of the team that enters the playoffs than the one that was running away from the pack in the first three months of the season.
Game 1: January 24, @Washington 5 – Boston 3… “Matt Attack”
“No-vechkin”…no Mike Green, no Nicklas Backstrom, either. Alex Ovechkin was serving the first of a three-game suspension for a hit on Pittsburgh’s Zbynek Michalek, and Green and Backstrom were out with injuries. And things did not start well for the Caps in this game, as Rich Peverley scored late in the first period for a 1-0 Boston lead after 20 minutes. The Caps got goals from Cody Eakin and Mathieu Perreault to put the Caps ahead. Then it became the “Mathieu Perreault Against the World” show. Tyler Seguin scored for Boston… Perreault scored barely two minutes later to restore the lead. Brad Marchand scored late in the second to tie the game at three apiece… Perreault scored in the eighth minute of the third period to give the Caps the last lead of the game, while recording his first NHL hat-trick. Dennis Wideman added an empty netter for the final score. Odd number… three. Perreault had three hits in the game; Milan Lucic had none.
Game 2: February 5th, Boston 4 – @Washington 1… “Remember Me?”
The Caps took advantage of Bruins backup goaltender Tuukka Rask in the first game of the series. In Game 2, they got Tim Thomas. He didn’t disappoint, if you were a Bruin fan. He was good early (11 saves on 11 shots as the Bruins went out to a 2-0 lead in the first period), better late (stopping 14 of 15 shots in the third period to stifle any Caps momentum), and was generally Vezina-like in recording 35 saves on 36 shots in the Bruins’ win. Odd number… 13. Alex Ovechkin had 13 shot attempts (seven on goal), seven hits, and finished minus-2 anyway.
Game 3: March 10th, Washington 4 - @Boston 3… “No Lead Is Safe”
The Caps used goals 25 seconds apart from Alexander Semin and Matt Hendricks in the first period to jump out to a 2-0 lead. Things looked very good for the Caps heading into the first intermission when, with six seconds left in the period, Milan Lucic beat two Caps to a loose puck after a face off in the Caps’ end and slid the puck past goalie Tomas Vokoun to halve the lead. When Brad Marchand scored between Vokoun’s pads on a semi-break to tie the game, it looked as if the Caps might wilt. But Alexander Semin took advantage of two Bruins running into one another as they were chasing him to find Jay Beagle with a centering pass that Beagle buried behind Tim Thomas. Brooks Laich scored on a power play when he deflected a Dennis Wideman drive, and things looked in control for the Caps. But Johnny Boychuk scored with less than five minutes left in regulation to make things needlessly interesting. Tomas Vokoun withstood a withering assault by the Bruins in the last two minutes to secure the win. Odd number… 13. With a goal and an assist, Alexander Semin started off on a run over the last 14 games of the season in which he was 4-9-13.
Game 4: March 29th, Washington 3 - @ Boston 2 (OT/SO)…”Save the Best for Last”
For two periods it was a joy to watch if you were a fan of defensive hockey. The teams combined for 24 shots on goal in the first 40 minutes of play, and the Caps managed to kill off all of a five-minute major to Jason Chimera for charging Boston defenseman Adam McQuaid (which also earned him a game misconduct). Things heated up in third period, though. Dennis Wideman and Marcus Johansson scored less than two minutes apart mid-way through the period to give the Caps a 2-0 lead. But the Bruins returned the favor with David Krejci and Andrew Ference scoring less than two minutes apart – Ference’s goal coming with only 1:16 left – to tie the game. After a scoreless overtime, the teams exchanged trick shot goals by Matt Hendricks and Tyler Seguin, then by Patrice Bergeron and Alexander Semin before Brooks Laich ended things with a wicked “can opener” move on Tim Thomas. Odd number… 18:25. That is how long goalie Tomas Vokoun lasted in his return from a lower body injury before reinjuring the lower part of his body. He has not been in the lineup since.
Washington: 16-10-4 against Eastern Conference playoff teams
Boston: 17-11-2 against Eastern Conference playoff teams
Boston: Tim Thomas (season series) – 1-1-1, 2.29, .921
Washington: Braden Holtby (season series): no appearances vs. Boston; Michal Neuvirth: 1-0-0, 2.58, .905
If familiarity breeds contempt, what will the Bruins’ unfamiliarity with Washington goaltenders breed? Hopefully, confusion. Assuming that Tomas Vokoun will not be ready to go in this series, the Caps remaining goalies have a total of 46:35 of ice time against the Bruins this season, all of it by Michal Neuvirth (whose availability for at least Game 1 is in doubt due to a knee injury). As for the Bruins’ Tim Thomas, his performances against the Caps have been progressively worse – 35 saves on 36 shots, 26 saves on 30 shots, and 21 saves on 23 shots (not including his being undressed by Matt Hendricks in the trick shot competition).
The Bruins’ Claude Julien has 648 games of regular season coaching experience in the NHL, plus another 67 post-season games. And there is that Stanley Cup last season on his resume. His communications skills are viewed in some quarters as a strength. Julien also has the benefit of a thorough knowledge of his roster in as wide a variety of situations as having coached the Bruins for 410 regular season and 56 playoff games can provide.
On the other hand, Dale Hunter had no coaching experience at any professional level before assuming the duties behind the Capitals bench after Bruce Boudreau was relieved of his duties on November 28th. And he does not have Julien’s reputation as a communicator, at least in the same quarters. Nor does he have the breadth of experience in coaching this Capitals roster. The number of games he has coached Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green together can be counted on one hand (four games to end the regular season).
It is this difference in coaching experience, perhaps as much as the difference in experience between the goaltenders to start this series, that is the biggest advantage for the Bruins.
Stars Who Must Be Stars
Washington: Nicklas Backstrom
The obvious pick here would have been Alex Ovechkin, but his ability to produce in the playoffs has been a constant in his career, and he did have a big finish to the regular season (11 goals in his last 13 games). The wild card is Nicklas Backstrom, whose absence was keenly felt in a number of dimensions. His absence meant that every center had to move up a level, and on a team that had no reliable number two center, that was a continuing problem. In his absence the power play was inconsistent at best, painful to watch at worst. Even if you argue that the power play was not very efficient before he was injured on January 3rd, Backstrom has been an effective playmaker with the man advantage over most of his young career; it is reasonable to expect improvement. He also has an ability to bend the game to his pace, to slow it down and make the correct play when called for. The Caps never replaced that talent in his absence. Boston has not faced Backstrom this season. If Backstrom is his old self, it could be a difficult series for the Bruins.
Boston: Tim Thomas
Folks will wax rhapsodically about Boston’s depth, their experience, their mettle. What it comes down to, however, is the guy with the strange style in goal. If Tim Thomas does not approximate his level of performance from last year’s post season, the Bruins might get past the Capitals, but it will not bode well for a long playoff run. Here is a number to keep in mind – two. Thomas has not won more than two consecutive appearances since the end of January. Since then he is 14-10-1, 2.63, .903, with one shutout. The question is, was he biding his time as a veteran getting ready for the post season? Or, is he starting to resemble a 37-year old goaltender? In three appearances against Washington this season he is 1-1-1, 2.29, .921.
Guys Who Might Be Heroes
Washington: Joel Ward
Here we are, the time of year a lot of folks had in mind when Joel Ward was signed to a four-year, $12 million contract as a free agent last summer. In 18 career playoff games he is 9-8-17 (he had six goals in 73 games with the Caps this past season). If “playoff” hockey is what the Caps have been trying to play in the last six weeks or so, Ward might be well-suited to competing with the burly Bruin forwards and defensemen along the wall, a trait that could be as important as an ability to be opportunistic on the score sheet. Boston works the walls well, and if Ward can negate that effort when he is on the ice, it could deny Boston opportunities in the offensive end of the ice. If Ward is a “hero,” it might be for things that do not show up on the score sheet.
Boston: Chris Kelly
On a team as deep as Boston it is hard to identify an unsung player who might emerge as a “hero.” Forward Chris Kelly fills the bill, though. He does a lot of things well. He is one of six Bruins with at least 20 goals (he has 20, a career high), six of which are game-winners (second best on the team). He is one of five players with a plus-30 or better. He is among the top-five Bruins forwards in takeaways and has a fine 2.3:1 ratio of takeaways to giveaways. He has a better-than-50 percent faceoff winning percentage. Kelly has not had much success against the Caps in his career – 1-5-6, minus-8 in 27 career games, including an assist in four games against Washington this season. But this has been in some respects a career year for him, and this post-season could be the next step up for the 31-year old.
In the end…
Looking at this series from on-high one is tempted to think, “Boston? Lose to the Caps?” and chuckle. The B’s finished the season with 102 points; the Caps barely made the playoffs. The Bruins are the defending champs; the Caps have spent most springs ending their season early as chumps. But Boston hasn’t been “Boston” since New Year’s Day. They have been a very ordinary team that beat up on a less-than-ordinary division (19-4-1 against their fellow travelers in the Northeast Division). Tim Thomas has not been up to his Vezina/Conn Smythe level of performance for the last two months. Only once since January 1st have the Bruins won as many as three games in a row. They are 9-2-1 in their last dozen games of the regular season, but it is not the same team that ran off those winning streak last fall.
Meanwhile, the Caps are as healthy among their skaters as they have been since late October. They are 11-1-0 when their “core four” – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green – are in the lineup. They finished the season 10-4-2 in their last 16 games. And they do not have the pressure of being an overwhelming favorite to go deep in the playoffs that did not agree with them the past two seasons. They are the hunters this time around, not the hunted.
Caps in six