The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
Well, here we are. It almost seems as though the season just started, and we are at the end of it. And here, at the end of the 2013 regular season, the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins find themselves in places they might not have thought when the season started that they would occupy as they face off against one another in Game 48.
For the Bruins, leading the Northeast Division and standing in second place in the Eastern Conference is not necessarily a surprise, but having faced a season-long challenge by the Montreal Canadiens for supremacy in the Northeast Division has to be regarded at least as a mild surprise, and heading into Game 47 on their schedule (it would have been Game 48 but for their Patriots Day game against Ottawa being postponed) with a 2-4-1 record in their last seven games has to be considered unexpected.
For the Caps, not many people thought of them as being on a short list of Stanley Cup contenders when the season began, and when they stumbled, bumbled, and fumbled their way to a 2-8-1 start, they were given up for dead as far as being a playoff contender at all was concerned. However, a 24-10-2 rush in their next 36 games propelled them to the top of the Southeast and in more than a few conversations as being a team to watch as the playoffs begin next week.
The Bruins come into this game a team in an uncertain state. On the one hand, in their 2-4-1 run of late their goaltending and defense has not been a problem. They have limited their last four opponents to 30 or fewer shots and have allowed only 16 goals against in the seven games over all (2.29). Tuukka Rask has shutouts in his last two appearances.
However, on the other hand the Bruins cannot seem to remember where the back of the net is. In those same seven games Boston has only 14 goals scored and has scored more than two goals just once (a 3-0 shutout of Florida last Sunday).
Tyler Seguin has had a pretty good stretch of late. He has a hand in five of the 14 goals Boston scored over their recent 2-4-1 run (3-2-5). It represents a turnaround of sorts for Seguin, who was 2-0-2 in his previous seven games. Dan Paille and Brad Marchand each have a pair of goals in these last seven games, but after that, scoring gets thin quickly. Only seven other players have one goal apiece, and the only other player with as many as three points over those games – Jaromir Jagr(1-3-4) – will be out for this game with a case of the flu.
As for getting any scoring help from the blueline, no defenseman has a goal for Boston in these last seven games, and the four defensemen with assists are merely tied in scoring with their goaltender, Tuukka Rask, who had an assist in a 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh last Saturday.
Speaking of Rask, he has been superb. He is just 2-3-0 in this seven-game stretch in six appearances (he came on in relief of Anton Khudobin in a 5-2 loss to Philadelphia last Tuesday), but his goals against average of 1.89 and save percentage of .941 with two shutouts has been top-notch. The question here is whether Rask will get a tune-up against the Caps on Saturday and sit for Sunday’s finale against Ottawa, or if head coach Claude Julien will hold him out of this game to face the Senators on Sunday.
Here is how the teams come into this final game of the year, numbers-wise…
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Boston: Carl Soderberg
For a fellow who has four games of NHL experience, Carl Soderberg has certainly had an interesting road getting there. It started back in 2004 when the Malmö Redhawk center in the Swedish Elite League was drafted in the second round (49th overall) by the St. Louis Blues. But a Redhawk he was then, and a Redhawk he remained, right through the 2010-2011 season. During that time, his rights were traded to the Boston Bruins – on July 23, 2007 – for goalie Hannu Toivonen. And then, even after that last season with Malmö, Soderberg did not hop the pond. He played for Linköpings HC in the SEL the last two seasons. But then things, as they say, took a turn. Set to come to Boston, the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation blocked his release to the NHL so that he would play for the Swedish national team in the World Championships. Soderberg then declined to play for the national team. He finally signed his first NHL contract two weeks ago today. A long and winding road, indeed. Oh, and he is 0-2-2 in his four games so far. As for Toivonen, he ended up playing for Malmö in the 2011-2012 season. Small world.
Washington: Braden Holtby
Braden Holtby got a night off on Thursday, and now it’s time to put his war face on, so to speak. He will not be getting a rest, all other things being equal, until the Caps season is over. Overall, he has been excellent down the stretch. Since the Caps last faced Boston (Holtby did not figure in that decision), Holtby is 13-3-1, 2.26, .929, with one shutout. But while he is capable of the superior performance (six times in 17 games he allowed fewer than two goals), he can have the occasional stinker. He has a couple of five-goals allowed performances in there, too. Caps fans will hope that “occasional” becomes “rare” from here on out. He is 2-0-0, 2.54, .919 in two career regular season appearances against Boston.
1. Dress rehearsal. In a sense, the Caps have been in a playoff mode for quite some time, given the challenge they faced coming from so far back in the standings. But now, it is time to work out whatever kinks they have left to work out. This is a game where the phrase, :”play the right way” really does apply.
2. Time + Space = Quick Decisions. Boston is a team that takes away time and space, trying to intimidate teams physically. The Caps need to make quick – and smart – decisions with the puck.
3. Fine Grind. One problem the Caps have had in the post-season in recent years is getting contributions from the bottom half of the forward lines. Starting now with those kinds of contributions is part of the “dress rehearsal.”
In the end…
This is a good test for the Caps going into the post-season. Boston still has something to play for, still looking to clinch the Northeast Division title and a two-seed in the playoffs. The Caps also will be getting the “hot” goaltender in Tuukka Rask (two shutouts in his last two complete games). And, there is not a lot to play for on an individual basis. Steven Stamkos might get a hat trick against Florida to tie Alex Ovechkin for the Richard Trophy, but it would not be the way to bet (he does not have a hat trick this season). Besides, this team really does have the look of “team first” about it. They are ready for their final rehearsal before the post season.
Capitals 3 – Bruins 2