If you are a hockey fan this is the best time of the year, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It is a two month stretch like no other in sports and the reward is one of the most coveted trophies going. For Washington Capitals fans, this is also a traditional time of great hope typically followed by torment and frustration. You see those of us who have supported this team from its’ inception in the 1974-75 season are still waiting for the first visit from Lord Stanley to the local franchise.
The last few years have renewed the promise of a championship that Capitals fans started feeling back in the 1980′s and 90′s but unfortunately, the endings that came with it then have once again returned recently. Great regular seasons were abruplty ended by seemingly out of nowhere losing streaks in 2010 and 2011. This after the crushing game seven losses to the Flyers and Penguins in 2008 and 2009, respectively. New Capitals fans, and there are many of them and that is a good thing, can now understand what the long time sufferers have endured. The rite of spring around here for hockey fans often leads to group therapy sessions on the links after the first or second round of the playoffs.
Ironically, it has been some of the Capitals teams that have struggled in the regular season that have had the best playoff runs in team history. The 1990 Caps crew coached by Terry Murray finished two games under .500 but knocked off the Devils and Rangers before losing to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then in 1998, the 4th seeded Caps beat Boston, Ottawa, and Buffalo before Ron Wilson’s club was swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the Finals. Both Murray and Wilson were first year Capitals coaches in those seasons (Murray took over for his brother, Bryan).
This year, the Caps are a 7th seed after a rough regular season that saw Dale Hunter come in after just 22 games to replace Bruce Boudreau behind the bench. Washington, who were picked by many back in October to win the Eastern Conference, appears to be flying under the radar if you read most of the national and local series previews and predictions.
So can this crew of players, who underachieved in the first 82 games, find a way to knock off the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins?
Let’s take a closer look.
My first reaction when the matchup was established was that I did not want the Caps to play the defending Stanley Cup Champions. The Bruins have experience at winning in the post season and they have two players who are among the best at their position in the entire league in defensemen Zdeno Chara and goalie Tim Thomas. However, Boston has been the hunted all season and they will have pressure to win again. The Caps have had a subpar regular season but outside of in net, they are finally healthy at the right time.
One would have to think the Capitals have yet to play their best hockey simply because they have had the key injuries. Boston’s best stretch came in November and December when they were nearly unbeatable. There are lots of good forwards on Boston but to me, the most important one is Patrice Bergeron. From a media standpoint he is an “under the radar” guy but everyone in the NHL knows how good this guy really is. #37 makes it happen for Boston and if Washington can find a way to slow him down then that could prove decisive. This series should be a very tight checking one and to me the team that takes care of the puck the best will win.
When it comes to series matchups, the one to watch is definitely Alexander Ovechkin vs. Zdeno Chara. There is no doubt that #33 loves playing against the Great 8 and he will use his stick and size to try and slow Ovechkin down. Alex has a major speed advantage so Hunter will need to try to find a way to get Ovechkin moving when he is approaching Chara. Alex also has to find a way to effectively use his teammates. His play away from the puck will be key to this matchup. If he plays strong in his own zone and creates some turnovers, he will get breakaways and/or odd man rushes. If he doesn’t bear down below the blue line then he will be easily neurtralized.
The difference, after turnovers, is going to be goaltending. If Braden Holtby remains composed and plays the way the whole organization knows he can play, then the Capitals have a chance to advance. #70 must be smart on when to be aggressive and help his defense by moving the puck. The Bruins are big and like to pound defensemen so Holtby’s stick handling could neutralize the forechecking ability of Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand. Tim Thomas runs hot and cold. It is vitally important that the Capitals get a lot of traffic on him. He can be rattled and guys like Matt Hendricks, Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, and Brooks Laich need to do that by crashing the crease.
The Capitals won three of the four regular season games and the one loss came with a depleted lineup (no Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, or Oveckhin plus Laich was injured in the middle frame). I’ve never been one to base playoff predictions off of regular season records, but statistics guru Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg) tweeted that 77% of the time the team that won the regular season series is victorious in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So the Caps have that going for them….which is nice.
But surely Washington won’t be able to knock off a deep and experienced Bruins club, right? After the regular season Washington had, this should be easy pickings for the B’s, correct?
I say, not so fast. This is not a bad matchup for Washington and they should be able to use their speed guys like Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera to take advantage of Boston’s defense. As I said above, if Holtby holds up and the Caps limit their turnovers, they are right in it.
Call me crazy, call me a homer, call me whatever you want, but I say, yes, the Caps are gonna shock the NHL and knock off the defending champs in six games.