September 2, 2014

Washington Capitals Hope to Imitate Regular Season in Playoff Matchup Against the B’s

One of the best things about the first rounds of the NHL playoffs is watching teams with a regular season history facing off against each other. The Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins met four times this season, all within the final 36 games of the campaign, and the teams built up a fair amount of animosity in those four games.

Perhaps surprisingly, the underdog Caps went 3-1-0 against the Bruins: that’s good news according to local stathead Neil Greenberg, who revealed that “teams that have a better head-to-head regular season record over their first-round playoff opponents…have won 77 percent of those series” since the 2005-06 season.

Knowing that Washington has better than 3-1 odds to beat Boston based on their head-to-head record in 2011-12, District Sports Page is taking a look back at those four meetings and highlighting a few players whose presence (or lack thereof) will impact the series result.

Regular Season Meetings

Game 1 (January 24, 2012): Capitals 5, Bruins 3

This game was going to be bad. Nicklas Backstrom was in the early, uncertain days of his concussion-related absence, Mike Green had returned to the press box after a brief attempt to return from a groin injury earlier in the month went awry, and captain Alexander Ovechkin had just been handed a three-game suspension for a high hit on Pittsburgh’s Zbynek Michalek in the previous game. It was the first Caps game without all three players since Backstrom joined the team at the start of the 2007-08 season. Meanwhile, Washington was hosting a Bruins team that was tied for first place in the Eastern Conference at the time, had two goaltenders in the top eight in GAA and Save%, and their goal differential was at its apex of +67.

However, Boston visited the White House the day prior to their Tuesday evening date with the Caps, and Tim Thomas’s much-publicized (and poorly-handled) absence for personal reasons was still looming in the minds of the media and fans. The Bruins were likely unaffected by the public pushback, but nonetheless faltered against Washington.

What exactly went right for the Caps? Mathieu Perreault earned his first career hat trick for starters, nearly doubling his goals on the season to that point in the process. Cody Eakin, capping an impressive three months of call-up duty with the big squad, scored his fourth and final goal of the season. Both teams were downright peaceful, combining for only five minor penalties, three of which came in the same second-period scrum. Despite coming from one-goal deficits in the second period to tie the game, the prevailing sense was that Boston was simply unprepared to play, and the Caps took advantage.

Game 2 (February 5, 2012): Capitals 1, Bruins 4

When Washington visited Boston two weeks after their surprising victory in the first game of the season series, the Bruins were far more prepared. The late January loss to the Caps was Boston’s last before the All-Star break, meaning that save All-Star Game participants Chara, Thomas, and Tyler Seguin, the Bruins roster had a full week with nothing but the bitter taste of defeat in their mouths.

Boston jumped out to an early lead in this one, on first period goals by Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand, and never looked back.  Eight seconds after the Marchand goal, Matt Hendricks challenged B’s defenseman Adam McQuaid to a fight. Many punches were thrown, but few landed, and Hendricks was assessed a roughing minor on top of the fight to add insult to injury. On the other end of the ice, Thomas was absolutely outstanding in his first game against the Caps after his White House snafu (he was the backup to Tuuka Rask on January 24), stopping 35 of 36 shots from a Caps team that hadn’t registered 30 shots in its previous 23 games.

More so than the final result, Washington fans were extremely worried about several players’ health at the end of this game. Brooks Laich took a heavy hit from Dennis Seidenberg in the second period and immediately crumpled to the ice, not to return to the game. From the look of the hit, speculation was that Laich may have tore his ACL, though the reliable center wouldn’t miss a single game. His teammate Dmitry Orlov didn’t fare so well in the injury front, taking a puck to the face for the second straight game and leaving with a broken nose. Orlov also didn’t miss a game, but spent much of the next month wearing a metal cage to protect his busted beak.

Game 3 (March 10, 2012): Capitals 4, Bruins 3

Whereas Boston’s quick start was the key to the Bruins’ 4-1 win in February, in the start of March it was a one-two punch by Alexander Semin and Hendricks in the early first period that set the tone for the Caps’ victory. Semin and Hendricks beat Thomas twice in a 25-second span, the former a lackadaisical-looking rebound that left Thomas helpless, the latter a second-chance whack during which the goal-scorer paid the price with several crosschecks to the back.

The same two early goal scorers from the February game, Lucic and Marchand, both scored again – Lucic with just six seconds remaining in the first period – but Washington again took a two-goal lead thanks to goals by Jay Beagle and Laich. Earning an assist on Laich’s power play deflection was Ovechkin, his first point against the Bruins in his second game against the B’s.

Caps head coach Dale Hunter asked Tomas Vokoun to oppose Boston, and for the second time the veteran netminder delivered a stellar performance. As has been frequent in Hunter’s regime, Washington packed it in on defense after taking their second two-goal lead late in the second period, and Vokoun turned away 12 of 13 shots faced in the final frame, only allowing a rebound from Johnny Boychuk after the Bruins pulled Thomas for an extra attacker late in the third period to beat him.

Game 4 (March 29, 2012): Capitals 3, Bruins 2 (shootout)

When Washington visited the Bruins in late March, the Caps’ presence in the playoffs was an uncertainty. At that point battling with the Buffalo Sabres for the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference, Washington’s last game of the season series against Boston was by far the most important, one that the Caps could little afford to lose.

Following a frequent trend from the previous three games against the B’s, Washington scored multiple goals in a short span- two in less than two minutes, to be precise, to take a 2-0 lead midway through the third period on goals by former Bruin Dennis Wideman and Marcus Johansson. Seemingly cruising to a victory, the Caps instead found themselves facing extra time when David Krejci and Andrew Ference scored in the final 3:10 of regulation. Tomas Vokoun started the game but left after only 18:25 minutes after reaggravating his groin injury (Vokoun remains out of the lineup to this day) and Michal Neuvirth finished it, earning his 12th win of the season thanks to Laich’s sudden death shootout winner.

Although there were only two penalized plays in the entire game, one of them will go a long way toward encouraging animosity in the upcoming best-of-seven series. Fourteen minutes into the game, Jason Chimera laid a massive hit on McQuaid behind Boston’s net that injured to Bruins player. McQuaid left the game with a head injury, and Chimera was given a five-minute major for charging and the automatic game misconduct that accompanies it when the player absorbing the hit suffers a head injury. Chimera wasn’t awarded any supplemental discipline, but McQuaid didn’t return to the game, has only played one period since then,* and isn’t expect to return until late in the first round, if at all. Certainly some of McQuaid’s teammates will be seeking revenge, the sooner the better if Boston is concerned.

Spotlight Players:

Alex Ovechkin: Well, duh. It may seem obvious, but the spotlight on Washington’s bench this series will unquestionably be on Ovechkin. In each of the Caps’ postseasons on which Ovechkin was the team, he was the leader in points and leader or co-leader with Backstrom in goals. He’ll draw the match-up against the NHL’s most fearsome shutdown defender, Zdeno Chara, who held Ovechkin pointless in three games this season.

Karl Alzner: If the Caps are looking to Alzner to shoulder any of the offensive load in their first round series, they will be sorely disappointed. Alzner provides Washington something more valuable than the one goal and 16 assists he recorded in 2011-12: solid defense. Along with John Carlson, Alzner will be tasked with shutting down Boston’s top scoring line of Brad Marchand (28 goals, 27 assists), Patrice Bergeron (22 goals, 42 assists), and Tyler Seguin (29 goals, 38 assists). Whether or not the fourth-year veteran is up to the challenge will go a long way toward Washington’s success, particularly if Thomas stands on his head in Boston’s net.

Patrice Bergeron: On the flip side, while Alzner will be defending Bergeron, the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) favorite will be attempting to shut down Ovechkin and Backstrom while still generating offense along with wingers Seguin and Marchand. Beyond his league-leading +/- rating of 36, Bergeron also rates second in the NHL in faceoff %, winning 59.3% of his draws. Expect to see Bergeron opposite Washington’s Jeff Halpern (58.3%, 5th in the NHL) in any crucial faceoff situation this series (assuming, of course, that Halpern isn’t a healthy scratch; if he is, then Washington’s next best faceoff man is Backstrom, the only other Capital over 50% at the faceoff dot (51.3%, 45th in the NHL).

Brad Marchand: Fighting against his linemate Seguin for the team scoring lead until the end of the season, eventually losing the race by one, Marchand now has 49 career goals, in two full seasons to go along with his Stanley Cup ring. That’s as many as Alexander Semin over the same time span; Alex Ovechkin is the only Washington player with more. Unlike Seguin, Semin, and Ovechkin, Marchand also stirs the pot. He only has three fights in the NHL to his name, but Marchand earned 87 penalty minutes this season, fourth most on his team, and is brutally effective at irritating and distracting more skilled opponents. In 25 playoff games last year, Marchand earned 40 PIMs, and earlier this season was given a five-game suspension for clipping the Vancouver Canucks’ Sami Salo.

X-Factors:

Nicklas Backstrom: Washington’s Super Swede (sorry, MoJo) was felled by Rene Borque’s elbow on January 5, and didn’t return until March 31. The 41-game span Backstrom sat out with a concussion just happens to encapsulate all four of the Caps’ games against the Bruins this season. Backstrom isn’t exactly an unknown quantity, but his presence will undoubtedly give the Caps a different, far more potent look than, say, when Mathieu Perreault was centering Washington’s first line. Prior to last postseason, Backstrom had 12 goals and 18 assists in just 28 playoff games (he only registered two helpers in the 2010-11 playoffs).

Braden Holtby: Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth largely backstopped Washington to the playoffs, but Holtby is taking over in Game 1 due to injuries suffered by both Czech goalies late in the season. Neuvirth may return by the end of the first round if his left knee holds out, while Vokoun is likely on the shelf at least until the beginning of May, if the Caps last that long. With a career record of 14-4-3 and three shutouts, a 2.02 GAA, and .929 Save% at the NHL level, Holtby has the skill to perform; the question is, does he have the mental fortitude?

When Boston’s Thomas looks across the ice from his crease at the start of Game 1 to the opposing netminder, he’ll be looking at a younger version of himself. Holtby is aggressive, acrobatic, loves to play the puck, and loves to finish any contact initiated by the other team. Last year Holtby earned a win against the B’s when he replaced Neuvirth midway through the third period after the starter coughed up a three-goal lead, but other than that, Boston only has a 21-game sample size to use to gameplan against Washington’s presumptive starter.

Nathan Horton: Out since January with a concussion, Horton is having the sort of lost season that the Washington organization was afraid would be the reality for Backstrom as well. In last year’s Stanley Cup Finals Horton absorbed a massive hit from Vancouver’s Aaron Rome, and missed the final four games of the series. Fully recovered at the start of this season, Horton had 17 goals and 15 assists in 46 games before suffering another concussion on January 22. Although Horton recently skated with the team again, the Bruins organization has indicated that Horton is unlikely to return this season. Horton’s absence coincided with a mid-season swoon for the B’s, and if Boston has any offensive woes in the first round, expect to read and hear about what might have been for the Bruins with another 30-goal scorer in the lineup.

*Originally this article stated that Adam McQuaid hasn’t played since leaving the game on March 29 after being hit by Jason Chimera. McQuaid missed three games and returned to the Bruins lineup on April 5 against the Ottawa Senators, but left that game after playing only seven minutes in the first and early second period.

Abram Fox is the Washington Capitals Page Editor for District Sports Page.  He has been covering the Capitals from the press box since the 2007-08 season.

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