Playoff Preview: Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals

When people were making their pre-season predictions, many had this as a possible Eastern Conference final. The Bruins did their part of winning their division and locking up the #2 seed but the Capitals have been struggling all year and barely made it into the playoffs. They’ve been marred by injuries, inconsistencies and coaching problems but they managed to make it do the dance. Unfortunately for Caps fans, making the playoffs hasn’t been an issue in years past, it’s been having success after that.

Can Washington manage to get over the hump and pull of an upset in the first round. We will see what the odds of that are after the jump.

Going by the standard underlying numbers, Boston has the advantage in just about every category so it’s going to take a lot of luck for the Caps to win this series.

Team 5v5 FenClose 5v5 Tied 5v5 Shots
Boston 52.6 52.93 52.3
Washington 49.71 51.26 48.8

 

Team 5v5 Sh% 5v5 Sv%
Boston 9.4% 0.922
Washington 8.6% 0.920

 

Team PP Sh% PK Sv% PP SF/60 PK SA/60
Boston 0.132 0.896 46.6 49.6
Washington 0.118 0.869 47.5 49.4

Once upon a time, Washington was a terrific possession team and had at least two lines who could drive play into their opponent’s end. Even when they weren’t scoring much, the Washington was still doing a fine job at controlling the shot count and creating chances. Ever since Dale Hunter took over, that hasn’t been the case. They’ve improved a bit over the last 10-20 games of the season, which coincides with the return of Nicklas Backstrom, but they still aren’t a very good possession team at all. Boston, on the other hand, is very good territorially. They were playing a little bit over their heads scoring-wise but they are still controlling the puck well and dictating the pace of play at a strong rate.

Both teams have the same amount of wins in one-goal games so that isn’t much of a factor here, but the Bruins have one of the best clear victory percentages in the Eastern Conference (.711) while Washington is in the middle of the pack (20-19). Now, I am willing to bet that Boston’s number got a boost from the various 6-1, 8-1, 5-0 performances they over the year but the point remains that the Bruins are a better possession team and have gotten more offense than the Caps this year.

Boston’s shooting percentage is a little high but if they can still keep the Caps in their own end for more than 50% of the time, they should be fine. The Bruins also have the edge in goaltending with Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask and it isn’t even close now that the Caps are being forced to start Braden Holtby, who has less than 25 games of NHL experience.

As far as special teams goes, the Bruins powerplay and penalty kill is slightly worse than Washington’s but they’ve been scoring more on the powerplay and their goaltending has been better shorthanded, which could cancel out the small disadvantage they have at special teams. Boston’s been a tad luckier on the powerplay and it’s possible that they could run cold but the same can be said for Washington’s.

The one thing that might give Washington the upper hand is that they have owned Boston in the season series by winning 3 of the 4 meetings. I don’t know how well this translates into the playoffs but the Caps seem to match up with the B’s pretty well and could make this a close series. Although, the goaltending issues on the Caps sight might set them back.

Forwards

Boston

With Nathan Horton recovering from a concussion Boston doesn’t have a lot of top-end, but they do have three productive lines that can give them a good amount of offense. Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and (oddly enough) Chris Kelly have at least 20 goals and they have four different players with at least 60 points. To make things even better, all of their top-scorers are killing it possession wise and the most impressive of which is Bergeron.

Bergeron takes tough draws against opposing team’s first lines and he has clearly won that battle in a big way over the season. His line with Seguin and Marchand have been the Bruins’ best unit this year and Bergeron’s terrific two-way play gives them another dimension. After them, they have some very impressive scoring depth as Lucic and Krecji are doing fine with softer minutes and they’ve seen some good play from trade deadline acquisition Brian Rolston. 

Some of their third liners have played a bit over their heads this year as both Kelly and Peverley have benefited from some lofty shooting percentages but if they can continue to shoot lights out then that makes the Bruins scoring depth even more dangerous. Regardless, Kelly can take tough matchups and is a solid third line center so I think he should be fine and Peverley played the tough minutes with the Thrashers and proved to be capable of doing that with the Bruins in the playoffs last year.

Boston’s fourth line is what I see as their only weak point. I’ve heard a lot of people calll them one of the “best in the league” but both Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille are getting shelled at even strength despite playing other team’s fourth liners. They are getting the short hand of the stick with zone starts but they haven’t done much to tilt play in the Bruins favor. Both are useful on the PK, though. It’ll be either Jordan Caron or Shawn Thornton playing the right wing on this line and if I was a Boston fan, I would hope that Claude Julien plays Caron.

Capitals

Dale Hunter has jumbled Washington’s lines more times than I could have even imagined, so I have no idea how each player will be used in the playoffs. One thing that I can assume is that Ovechkin will be playing with Nicklas Backstrom and they are probably going to draw the Bergeron line and Zdeno Chara as their matchup. Ovechkin hasn’t been the territorial beast at even strength that we have known him as, but he and Backstrom have ridiculous chemistry and could be dangerous in the playoffs. It is hard to sleep on players with that much talent even if they have underperformed.

An interesting proposition for Dale Hunter might be to split up Ovechkin and Backstrom to get one of them away from Chara and Bergeron but the probelm there is that they don’t have another top-six center outside of Backstrom. Johansson gets soft minutes and hasn’t done much with them, Brooks Laich has been used as either a winger or defensive center this season and Mathieu Perreault has mostly played with soft minutes. Which one of those will center OV if Hunter does break up his star duo? Good question.

An X factor could be Alexander Semin as he is doing a fine job at driving the play despite not scoring as much as he is expected to and he could possibly do some damage in the playoffs. That is, if he cares enough or whatever the problem is with him. In all honesty, he, Chimera & Perrault haven’t been terrible as a line this season and they could definitely provide some secondary scoring if Washington’s top unit falls flat.

As for their bottom-six, there isn’t much to say because I don’t know who is going to be in the lineup. Keith Aucoin has definitely deserved a spot since he has driven the play well against weak competition. Troy Brouwer will probably be playing on either the first or the third line depending on what Hunter sees fit. Jay Beagle will be taking the bulk of defensive zone draws with Matt Hendricks and possibly Brooks Laich. Joel Ward should be in that conversation too but he’s been grossly misused by Hunter this year and rarely plays over 10 minutes a night.

Mike Knuble has been scratched on most nights and it’s clear to see why when looking at the chart. He has been getting pinned in his own zone a lot, but I think he can be useful for Washington in a top-six role because he doesn’t have to do much to be effective on the top line. 

Defensemen

Bruins

It’s basically Zdeno Chara and then everyone else. Boychuk has played with Chara for most of the year and actually has decent numbers away from him, too but I still think he is very vulnerable when he’s in one-on-one coverage or isn’t playing on a defense pairing with Chara. I’m not saying that Boychuk is an abominable defenseman but playing with an elite player like Chara can cover up a lot of your flaws and that’s certainly the case here. That being said, these two have worked well together and should be fine against the Caps top line.

The rest of the D isn’t nearly as impressive. Greg Zanon was a nice pick-up at the deadline because it gives them someone else who can play top minutes but his days as a top shutdown defender are gone. Ference, Mottau and McQuaid haven’t been good this year and Seidenberg appears to be solid but not spectacular. Meanwhile our old friend Joe Corvo has seen his play drop off a ton since last season. He has been sheltered a lot by Claude Julien and has even found himself scratched on a few mights. It’s odd because he did a decent job at playing semi-tough minutes in Carolina not too long ago. That being said, Corvo is a solid option for them on the powerplay and I think that could play a factor in this series.

Boston’s might have the best defenseman in the league but they do have some depth issues on their blue line because the pairings outside of Chara can be exposed. I expect two of McQuaid, Mottau or Ference to sit on most nights, but I stand by my original point. It’ll be up to Hunter and the Caps players to take advantage of these matchups, though.

Capitals

John Carlson and Karl Alzner will be the key defense pairing for the Capitals and their play has dropped off quite a bit from last season. I’m going to give Alzner the benefit of the doubt because I don’t remember him taking on this tough of competition last season, same with Carlson. It’s going to be up to them to take down Boston’s top six though because the rest of the defense doesn’t have too much experience playing the toughs, at least not this season.

Dennis Wideman is a terrific offensive defenseman but he is prone to bad decision and tends to lose an edge once every six shifts so that will be an issue. Wideman will be a factor on the powerplay along with Mike Green and both appear to be doing well at even strength, so I think both will be fine in a secondary role. Their production on the powerplay is obviously going to go a long way, too. Dimitry Orlov is also playing well at even strength but in a 2nd/3rd pairing role and I would assume that will be playing instead of Jeff Schultz or John Erskine. 

Roman Hamrlik has been the cause of a lot of scrutiny for Capitals fans but he actually appears to be winning the battle at even strength even with taking more draws in his own zone. He is is pretty slow now but I think he can be useful in a defensive role and that should help Washington a little bit because they are going to need all the help they can get defending Boston’s offense. I also think Hamrlik is valuable as a penalty killer and should help take some burden off Alzner & Carlson.

One thing I do like about Washington’s defense is that they have a lot of guys who can contribute in all three areas of the game, which can help them a lot in the playoffs but just about all of them have under performed and that’s going to be an issue. Carlson & Alzner are still in their early-20′s and can only do so much while Green has not looked like himself since returning from injury. The Caps D has the potential to be very good but they definitely have not shown it this season, and they certainly have their work cut out for them against Boston.

Goaltending

Washington is a hot team going into the playoffs and it’s hard to pick against a team with their star talent but goaltending might be their downfall. Both Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun are injured and probably aren’t returning this round which means that Braden Holtby will be the team’s de facto starter. It is tough to say what Holtby’s true talent level is because he’s only played in 25 NHL games and has been either really good or really bad in just about all of them.

The playoffs are known as the land where anything can happen and Holtby would be a great story if he can lead the Caps through the first round but the odds of that happening seem pretty low right now. Holtby’s a very aggressive goaltender with poor rebound control which is going to be a problem if the Caps defensive coverage stays as poor as it’s been all year.

Then you have Boston who have one of the best goaltenders in the NHL in Tim Thomas and a solid back-up in Tuukka Rask. Thomas is prone to give up a bad goal or two but he also led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup victory only last season. Thomas is far more of a sure thing than Holtby regardless of his playing style and this gives the Bruins a huge advantage over the Caps.

Prediction

I know that some people have the Capitals winning in an upset but I don’t see it happening. Hunter has done some baffling things with the lineup and their goaltending is a gigantic question mark. I feel much safer going with the team who has been playing better at even strength for the entire season, that team being the Bruins who I see taking this series in five games. The Caps can easily make things interesting but Hunter hasn’t given me (or anyone else) much of a reason to be confident in him at this point.

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