The Bruins might have had an easier time with the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs.
But the stone, cold reality of the Stanley Cup playoff situation is that Boston has instead drawn an incredibly tough No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference in the Washington Capitals. Washington is full of talent and possibility, but very short on results this season.
Its a reality Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has made peace with while others might have had their fingers crossed for a trip to Ottawa.
Ive gotten over the hoping to play somebody thing over the years. At some point youll have to play these teams and beat them. Often times, the season matchup doesnt translate into the postseason matchup, said Chiarelli. Record shows we havent played as well against Washington, and for that reason it will probably be a tough opponent. Were not disappointed, but just ready to move on and face them as tough opponents. Ottawa wouldve been just as hard.
Sure the Caps struggled their way into the playoffs and underachieved from the get-go through injuries and underperformance, but they still have some of the best offensive hockey talent in the NHL.
Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin can create offense against the best defenses in the NHL, and Nicklas Backstrom has returned to full health just as the postseason rolled around. Add that to offensive-minded defenseman like Dennis Wideman and Mike Green who has struggled all season with injuries, but still has the potential inside of him and there is a goal-producing juggernaut lying in wait.
Chiarelli was well aware of that along with Bostons 1-2-1 record against the Caps this season, and Semins 14 points (5 goals, 9 assists) in his last 15 games against the Bs. There are good matchups and there are bad matchups in Stanley Cup playoff series, and drawing Washington is less than ideal for the Black and Gold in their repeat bid.
I think we have to shut down their skill. Between Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, theyve got good skill in the back end. Theyre a high-end skill team, and I think its really important we play the gaps tight in all three zones with these guys, said Chiarelli. We can do that. Thats the biggest things. We have to get pucks on their goalie. If its the goalie thats been playing, Braden Holtby, I think hes a good, young goalie thats just inexperienced. So we have to get traffic and pucks there.
While its true that Bostons ability to expose a Washington goaltending group beset by injuries Tomas Vokoun exited the last regular season game against the Bruins with a nagging groin issue and hasnt been seen since the BruinsCapitals series will turn into a game of match-ups. The Capitals will do whatever they can to squeeze as much production out of Ovechkin as possible, and hes been up to the challenge over the last month with 11 goals in his final 13 games.
Meanwhile the Bruins are going to attempt locking the Zdeno CharaDennis Seidenberg defensemen pairing on the ice against the Russian sniper as much as possible. The postseason series, in all likelihood, will hinge on Bostons tower of power shutdown defenseman putting the clamps on Washingtons most explosive offensive force.
Ovechkin has 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) in 15 games against the Bruins with a minus-1 rating over that time, but a steady diet of Chara over the last two seasons has limited the Russian sniper to one goal and a minus-4 in seven games over the last two seasons.
Chiarelli assumed he wasnt giving away any state secrets by admitting the CharaOvechkin head-to-head battle will go a long way toward defining the winner and loser in the seven-game series.
I dont think we played very well against the Capitals this year. We went through a pretty long stretch when we were average and I think we played them twice in that stretch, said Chiarelli. Im not going to give you our matchups, but the big thing is, Zdeno Chara against Alexander Ovechkin.
Chara takes pride in shutting down Ovechkin, so I think obviously youre going to see that matchup. They have some good skill, some real good shooters and its important to keep those guys on the outside and away from the inside. So, theres a preliminary game plan for you.
Theres more to it than that, of course.
The Bruins offensive depth will have to do damage against a team defense and penalty kill that ended the season in the bottom third of the NHL over 82 regular season games, and partner with the shutdown defense. Its a tall order for the Bruins, but one made easier if Holtby gets the call for Washington with both Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth banged up.
Its a winnable series for the Bruins, but one that could take some starch out of them if stretches out to six or seven games.
In fact theres a realistic scenario with the Bruins being forced to play the Capitals, Penguins and Rangers as they make their way through the Eastern Conference gauntlet this spring, and thats a long, arduous road to the top.
Its possible for the Bruins to overcome all of this en route to a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, but it will start by wiping the gap-toothed smile off the face of Ovechkin and his Capitals teammates.