Well it’s not the matchup hockey fans in the nation’s capital expected, or in reality, want, but the fact that the Washington Capitals are in the playoffs this season is a huge plus. Washington ended what can only be described as a tumultuous and bumpy regular season by defeating the Eastern Conference’s best team, the New York Rangers rather handily last Saturday night.
The Capitals scored early and often-in defeating the Blueshirts. Team Captain Alex Ovechkin scored his 38th goal of the season just 32 seconds into the contest, and Mathieu Perreault’s 16th goal of the season at 2:18, turned out to be the game winner. The Caps scored on their first two shots of the contest, and added two more goals for good measure. Defenseman John Carlson scored his ninth of the season while the Caps were on the power play. The tally from Carlson was his first since Feb 22, but that is nothing compared to time between goals from Washington’s top center, Nicklas Backstrom.
Backstrom finished off the scoring for the capitals as he scored his 14th of the year, and his first since Dec. 30 during the second period. Backstrom missed 40-games this season after taking a cheap shot elbow from Rene Bourque back on Jan 3 at Verizon Center during a Caps win over the Calgary Flames.
The Capitals and the rest of the hockey world assumed Saturday’s game would be a preview of a Caps-Rangers first round playoff series, but you know what happens when you assume. You end up playing the Boston Bruins, and oh by the way—-just happen to be the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The Capitals finished the regular season 42-32-8, which was good for 92 points. Nevertheless, this year’s playoffs are going to be a very different journey than the one Washington traveled the past two seasons. As Regular season Eastern Conference champions during the past two campaigns, Washington held home ice advantage in ever series they played. However, as a seventh seed the Caps will play the first two games of every series on the road, as well as any pivotal game seven they may encounter. This is of course they face the Ottawa Senators in the conference finals, and I do not have to waste your time previewing that matchup do I?
Last year Washington won the east with 107 points and dominated the NHL two seasons ago when they won the President’s Trophy with 121 points. The Capitals are entering the first round of the playoffs as the clear-cut underdog vs. a Bruins team that finished 49-29-4, and 102 points. They won the Northeast division by 10 points over the second place Senators, who will now face the Rangers, a team they beat three out of four times this season.
There is good news if the Caps can manage to win the series. Based on history, the winner of this series will advance to play in the Stanley Cup finals. Washington and Boston have met two previous times during the post season, and the team that won the series played for the Stanley Cup. The bad news is that neither won it, and in fact, it only took a combined nine games to beat both of them. Washington won the Conference Quarter-Finals match-up 4-2 back in 1998, eventually advancing to play the Detroit Red Wings in the franchises only Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Despite a stellar performance from Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig, the Caps were swept by a Wings team that was the last squad to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
Boston swept the Capitals in four straight games during the 1990 Conference Finals before losing in five games to the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Finals.
This season the Capitals have gotten the better of the B’s, as Washington posted a 3-1-0 mark vs. Boston this season. All four contests occurred Jan. 24 or later in the season, but Capitals players’ caution, that doesn’t mean anything once the second season begins on Thursday night at TD Bank Garden.
Caps defenseman and former Bruin Dennis Wideman told reporters that track record, which includes a pair of wins at TD Garden, is meaningless. “It means nothing,” Wideman said. “Boston, they’re a different team in the playoffs. We had success against them throughout the regular season, but I think you’re going to see a different team [when] we play them in the first round. “
Both teams enter the post-season playing good hockey. Washington finished the 2011-12 season with a 6-2-2 record over their last 10 games, with wins over the Bruins, Rangers, and Red Wings on the road. This is the fifth consecutive season the Capitals have made the playoffs, but is still well short of the 13 straight post seasons the Caps appeared in from 1983 through 1996.
The Caps are here thanks largely in part to a franchise best 7-0-0 record to start to the season. But good things never last, and neither did the Caps great play. Washington fell hard back to earth following their best ever start. Washington went 7-12-1 over their next 20 games, and saw their head coach from the last four and half years fired because of their poor play. Gm. George McPhee said Boudreau had pulled every card and tried every trick, nothing was working anymore”. Bruce “Gabby” Boudreau was gone, and former Caps tough man and team captain, Dale Hunter took over and implemented his disciplined trapping style of play and the Caps responded, sort of.
Washington improved slightly as they post an 11-7-2 record during their next 20 games, but seemed to be struggling with the consistency in which they played Hunter’s game. The Capitals also struggled with injuries as Mike Green missed 47 games due to a groin injury and surgery, and Nicklas Backstrom went down after being hit in the head by Rene Bourque with a cheap shot. Backstrom would sit with concussion like symptoms for 40-games before returning March 31. The Caps top center was their leading scorer at the time of his injury on Jan 3 and continued to be 17 games following his sudden departure from the lineup.
Washington could not seem to get over the proverbial hump that was winning with consistency and could only muster an 11-11-3 record during their next 25 games. During that span of games, Washington went 1-5-1 during one stretch and dropped to 10th in the East. Their 6-2-2 is a minor miracle when you consider that Washington dropped games to two teams directly involved in the playoff chase with them. The Caps coughed up a three-goal lead at home to the Winnipeg jets, and lost 4-3 in overtime. Four nights later they were dropped again on home ice by the Buffalo Sabres 5-1, but the Caps, as they always seemed to do this season recovered by beating the Bruins and Canadiens in back-to-back games and then beat the Panthers and Rangers to close out the season.
The Caps got a little help as the Jets and Sabres faltered badly following their victories over Washington. Winnipeg went 2-6-2 to close out the season and Buffalo wasn’t much better posting a 1-3-1 mark following their win in D.C.
The Bruins began the season with a huge Stanley Cup hangover, and many wondered if the B’s could be done in in early November. No team is done in early November, especially one with Tim Thomas in net. Boston began their defense of Lord Stanley’s Cup by starting the season a paltry 3-7-0. Boston and Washington took very different paths to their post season and it started with the first 10 games of the year. While Washington was 7-3-0, the B’s were exactly the opposite at 3-7-0, and very much suffering from a Stanley Cup hangover. No team’s season is finished at the end of October, especially one with Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, and Brad Marchand. The Bruins woke up and got regular season sober in a hurry. Boston would win 21 of their next 24 games to surge to the top of the Eastern Conference. However, like the Capitals, Boston suffered through a very mediocre stretch following the first of the year and went 16-18-2.
Tim Thomas brought a lot of unwanted attention into what was perceived as a close-knit clubhouse as he skipped the White House ceremony honoring the Cup Champs. Thomas has a major difference of opinion with U.S. President Barrack Obama’s politics, and did not want to attend the White House Ceremony. The team seemed to suffer a bit because of the unwanted and unnecessary attention, and Thomas slumped. Not that he missed the event, but the Bruins seem to be a close-knit group and this attention seemed to place a wedge that wasn’t needed. However, Thomas recovered, and so did his team. The Bruins ended the season on a 9-2-1 stretch and will begin their defense of the Stanley Cup at home on Thursday.
The Bruins season numbers do not exactly possess a “Wow” factor to them and as you will see throughout this preview, Boston wins with consistency, not flash and flair. They are tough in the corners and in front of the net and hold a large advantage on the Caps in terms of team size and strength.
Two important parts of last year’s Cup winning team are not there this year. Second-line right wing Mark Recchi opted for retirement after winning his third Cup, while third-line right wing Michael Ryder cashed in as a free agent with a two-year, $7-million deal from Dallas.
Recchi will be missed both on and off the ice. He was still an effective player at 43, chipping in 48 points in the regular season last year, and 14 more in the playoffs, but was even more valuable for his leadership and experience. That will be tough to replace, but Boston now has an entire room full of players who know what it takes to win a Cup, which should soften the blow of losing Recchi’s guidance this post season. Ryder was inconsistent during the 2010-11 regular season, finishing with just 18 goals and 41 points, but he once again delivered when it mattered most with 8-9-17 totals in the playoffs — not to mention one memorable game-saving stop covering for Tim Thomas in goal against Montreal. Boston will also have forward Nathan Horton, who is expected to miss the Stanley Cup playoffs because of a concussion. Horton suffered the injury Jan. 22 in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers and has not played since. This is not a surprise to Bruins fans, but it should be noted that during last year’s Cup run Horton was a pivotal part of the team.
He had three game-winning goals, including the winners in the Game 7 victories over Montreal and Tampa Bay. But he missed the final four games of the championship series against Vancouver after suffering a concussion in Game 3. The Bruins used the hit on Horton as inspiration to upset the Canucks.
Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome hit Horton with a semi-late shoulder-to-head hit that forced him out of the playoffs with a severe head injury. For the hit, Rome was suspended for the remainder of the Finals, which was the longest suspension in NHL final history.
The Bruins are looking to avoid becoming the fourth Cup champ since the end of the lockout to be beaten in the first round of the playoffs. Last year defending champion the Chicago Blackhawks were eliminated by eventual West champ Vancouver in seven games. But the Hawks didn’t go quietly. The trailed three games to none in the series before eventually losing game seven in overtime to the Canucks.
The Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning were also beaten in the first round following their Stanley Cup championships. It is important to note that the Bolts had a two-year stretch between their title defense as the 04-05 season was canceled due to the NHL lockout.
Washington enters the 23rd postseason with what can only be described as an awful playoff history. The Capitals have suffered some of the worst post-season collapses in NHL playoff history. Just during the past two seasons, Washington made history as the commercials say which promote the NHL playoffs, but the Caps did it for all of the wrong reasons. Two seasons ago, the Caps became the first ever No.1 seed to blow a 3-1 series lead and lose a playoff series to an eight seed (Montreal Canadiens). Last season Washington became the first No.1 seed to be swept during the second round of the playoffs. The Capitals, just during the Alex Ovechkin era have never advanced further than the second round and have lost three game sevens, all on home ice. The Great 8 and company are 17-20 since making their first trip into the second season back in 2008.
Whether or not the Capitals win will depend on a number of things, but not everything has to break exactly right for Washington. They are a talented team, and are more than capable of dethroning the champs quickly in the first round if things do break exactly as they need them to.
Here is a comprehensive preview of the Caps first round match-up vs. the Bruins