NHL Playoffs 1st Round Preview: Washington-Boston

The Boston Bruins begin their quest for a second straight Stanley Cup as the #2 seed in the East and champs of the Northeast Division. The Washington Capitals have a recent history of playoff disappointment as a favorite, but after a tough season now get to play the underdog role from the 7-slot. TheSportsNotebook previews this great battle of the East Coast…

Boston is a well-balanced team that has no real weaknesses. Even though they lost their top scorer, Nathan Horton, to a concussion that will leave him out of the playoffs, the Bruins still finished third in the league in scoring. They did so, because Horton was only nominally the top offensive player. In reality this is a team that gets contributions everywhere on the ice, with the passing of defenseman Zdeno Chara, and contributions up front from Milan Lucic, David Krejici and Patrice Bergeron. The Bruins succeed offensively by sustained assault, as they also rank third in shots on goal.

The Washington team that Boston will attack has serious problems in goal right now. Tomas Vokoun was inconsistent to begin with and now a groin injury has his status uncertain. Michael Neuvirth is tentatively expected to start Thursday’s opener, but he’s got a knee problem. Given that neither one has played well, would the Caps be better off just blowing the whole thing up, going for the romantic storyline and giving untested 22-year-old Braden Holby a shot? I can tell you as a Boston fan that it’s the scenario I fear the most. The Bruins can handle Washington’s regular goalies. They might blow Holby out of the arena. But unfamiliarity is never a positive development for the favorite.

One player who will be eminently familiar to everyone is Washington forward Alex Ovechkin. His final numbers weren’t superstar-level due to a slow start, but he still scored 38 goals and he’s the reason why a team that only ranks 23rd in getting shots is able to translate that into being 14th in scoring goals. But Boston can answer Ovechkin with an above-average team defense and a goalie in Tim Thomas, who had some tough stretches this year and he’s getting up there in age, but still played well and has that warrior mentality you want in the playoffs.

The special teams are not a strength for either team, with both ranking considerably higher in 5-on-5 play. This is something that speaks of well of the winner’s ability to advance, since you don’t want to dependent on officiating at this time of year.

I know it must come off that I think Boston is a heavy favorite, but I don’t see it that way. Maybe it’s the fan in me overriding the analyst, because based on the numbers—including recent form, where each team won 11 of 20 to end the season—there’s just no reason to think Washington should win. Even allowing for the considerable talent of Ovechkin, the looser officiating in the playoffs make it harder for a forward to step up and dominate. But on the flip side, after so many years of favorite flameouts, it would be in keeping with the NHL playoffs for the Caps to suddenly turn into the feisty dog. But in the end, I’ll take the Bruins’ team offense to trump Washington’s goaltending issues in a hotly contested series.