Last season, the Bruins played three seven-game series en route to winning the Stanley Cup, and the first one came in the opening round against the Canadiens.
They won the Cup, but the B’s literally came a bounce away from being knocked out in the first round.
This time around, the Bruins shouldn’t have any excuse for it being that close. The idea of facing Alexander Ovechkin as many as seven times is a scary thought, but the Bruins survived series against the likes of Steven Stamkos and the Sedin twins a season ago – and those teams had goaltending.
Here’s a look at how the Bruins and Capitals match up in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
The Bruins have depth, while the Capitals have pizzazz, but the Bruins average a half-goal more per game this season than Washington.
Given that whatever line Ovechkin plays on will end up getting to know Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg pretty well, the Capitals would be wise to spread their talent across their top three lines. That happens to be exactly what they’re doing.
The Caps' other two offensive stars, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, are on the team’s second line in an effort to create a more balanced attack. Ovechkin is skating with center Brooks Laich (16 goals, 25 assists) and Troy Brouwer (18 goals, 15 assists), while Semin and Backstrom skate on the second line with Jason Chimera (20 goals, 19 assists). Marcus Johannson (14 goals, 32 assists) was recently moved down to the third line with Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks.
A large part of this comes down to Ovechkin, as he’s as dangerous as anyone in the league when he wants to be. Still, we’ve seen enough of Chara vs. Ovechkin over the years to know that he can, for the most part, be neutralized. Even if he is, that second line with Backstrom is the one to keep an eye on.
Backstrom missed 40 games this season due to a concussion, but he showed he’s feeling better with a goal and an assist against the Rangers in the regular-season finale. The 24-year-old has on his resume a 101-point season, which he put together in 2009-10.
The Bruins had six 20-goal-scorers this season, and their plan isn’t any different than it was a year ago: They want to beat teams with three effective lines that can score and a fourth line that can keep the puck in the offensive end and grind teams down.
David Krejci led all players with 12 goals and 23 points last postseason, and there is no doubt that he takes his game to another level in the playoffs. He doesn’t have Nathan Horton, but he does have a healthy Milan Lucic, who is looking to have more than the 12 points he totaled while playing the last postseason with a sinus infection and a broken toe.
Another line to keep an eye on is the Bruins’ third line. Last year’s trio of Chris Kelly between Rich Peverley and Michael Ryder was clutch and created matchup problems. With Peverley on the first line and Ryder in Dallas, the question is whether Benoit Pouliot can replace Ryder’s 17 points and whether Brian Rolston has a long playoff run in him. The third line has been great for the Bruins of late, and if it can replicate the success of last year’s edition, the B’s will be sitting pretty.
The Bruins definitely have the best defenseman in this series, and to say they don’t have the two best defensemen would probably be an insult to Seidenberg.
Based on how he’s looked in practice, Johnny Boychuk seems like he should be ready for Thursday, and the Bruins will pair him with Andrew Ference as long as he’s healthy. Adam McQuaid’s status remains both unknown and a sensitive subject, so if he’s not in, the Bruins likely will pair Joe Corvo with Greg Zanon.
The Capitals have gone with John Carlson and Karl Alzner as their top pairing in recent practices. Carlson, a native of Natick, was a minus-15 in the regular season.
Dennis Wideman, whom Bruins fans remember from his days in Boston, was an All-Star this season, and he finished third on the entire team with 46 points. Wideman has skated on a pairing with Jeff Schultz recently in practice.
Former Canadiens blueliner Roman Hamrlik has had his struggles under new Washington coach Dale Hunter, as he was a healthy scratch in nine straight games from Feb. 20 until he returned on March 10 against the Bruins. Hamrlik is paired with Mike Green, who has been a Norris Trophy finalist twice in his career.
Green missed most of the regular season with injuries, with most of time out of the lineup being due to a groin injury. When healthy, Green is known for his offensive prowess, but he isn’t exactly the type of defenseman opposing forwards fear physically.
Here’s a stat that should tell you everything you need to know about this matchup: The Bruins were a plus-67 in the regular season, which was tops in the NHL. The Capitals were a minus-8, making them one of only two playoff teams with a negative rating this season.
There’s no debate with this one. Tim Thomas won the Conn Smythe a season ago, and even if last year’s heavy workload eventually catches up to him, it probably won’t happen in the first round.
The Capitals, meanwhile, once again find themselves without a dependable goaltender as the playoffs begin. This time, it isn’t necessarily their fault. They signed Tomas Vokoun in the offseason with the hope that they could finally go a season without goaltending being a glaring weakness, but groin injuries have plagued Vokoun throughout the season. Backup Michal Neuvirth then suffered a leg injury last week.
Both Vokoun and Neuvirth have been on the ice, but the Capitals will open the first round with third-string goalie Braden Holtby as their starter.
Want to know how big the difference is between Thomas and the 22-year-old Holtby? Thomas’ numbers -- both save percentage and goals-against average -- in the NHL this season are better than Holtby’s in the AHL. Holtby has played in 21 career NHL games.
Neuvirth figures to be able to return sooner than Vokoun, but regardless of who the Caps have in net, the Bruins should have the clear advantage with Thomas or, should anything happen to Thomas, Tuukka Rask. The Finnish netminder has been practicing with the team and facing shots, so he doesn’t seem too far from being ready should the team need him.
The numbers swing in the B's favor, but this is probably the closest area for comparing the two teams. The Bruins actually ranked better on the power play (15th) this season than the Capitals (18th), but the skill that the Capitals boast on the man advantage is still better because of Ovechkin.
Like the regular lines, Ovechkin is on a different power-play unit than Backstrom and Semin, but if the man advantage stalls early on, Hunter would be wise to put the trio together.
As for the Bruins, they just need to hope for better results on the power play than they had last postseason. The team put up a goose egg in the first round (0-for-21) and went just 5-for-61 until the Stanley Cup finals.
A season ago, the whole world was calling for Claude Julien to give Tyler Seguin more time on the power play. He finished this regular season second only to Chara in power-play points with 15, and is on the second unit as the postseason begins.
Where the Bruins separate themselves in this discussion is the penalty kill. They killed off 83.5 percent of their penalties, good for 11th in the league, while the Capitals ranked 21st with an 81.6 rate. Patrice Bergeron is a serious Selke candidate this season, and Kelly, Daniel Paille and Brad Marchand have shown that the B’s are no strangers to shorthanded breaks.
Hunter may have lasted longer in the NHL, but he isn’t on Claude Julien’s level yet. A season ago, Julien was the guy who could make a bad team good but couldn’t necessarily take it much further. Now, there’s no denying that he’s the man for the job.
The Capitals fired Bruce Boudreau in November and went with Hunter, who had been coaching the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. He certainly wasn’t the cleanest player in his playing days, as Pierre Turgeon and others could attest, but he’s coaching now and trying to make Washington a more defensively responsible team.
As for the Bruins, coaches rarely get the credit when they deserve it, and Julien’s handling of Seguin last postseason -- even when people were criticizing it -- is an example of it. Julien was bashed in the media when he chose to keep a slumping Ryder in the lineup in the first round over Seguin, but the move paid off. Seguin got back into the lineup after Bergeron’s concussion and showed he deserved to stay, but the bottom line was that Julien listened to himself rather than his doubters. Julien probably didn’t get as much props as he deserved for what the Bruins did last season, because he made decisions others wouldn’t make, and they worked out.
The Senators may have been the easier matchup, but the Capitals are hardly the Bruins’ worst nightmare. The B’s obviously have the challenge of silencing some very good offensive players, but at the end of the day, they’re facing a team with underwhelming defense and a third-string goalie. There are teams in the Eastern Conference that the Bruins would struggle to get by -- the Penguins, Rangers, Flyers -- but the Capitals aren’t one of them.
Unlike last year, the Bruins should open the postseason with a relatively easy series.
PREDICTION: Bruins in five.