The Boston Bruins will begin the defense of their Stanley Cup title tonight, as they host the Washington Capitals at TD Garden for Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
The second-seeded Bruins won their first Stanley Cup title since 1972 last spring, outlasting heavily-favored Vancouver in seven games.
On paper, Boston looks a lot like last year's championship squad. Zdeno Chara still looms large on the blue line and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas remains one of the league's best goaltenders. The Bruins did improve their scoring this season, as sophomore forward Tyler Seguin led the way for Boston's offense with a breakout campaign.
Thomas was not as dominant in 2011-12 as he'd been in winning his second Vezina last year, but a 35-19-1 record and a 2.36 goals-against average hardly constitutes a down season.
Thomas won the Conn Smythe Trophy for Boston's run to a title, going 16-9 with a 1.98 GAA and .940 percentage in 25 playoff games last spring.
"He's a veteran goalie that won the Stanley Cup last year," said Caps coach Dale Hunter of Thomas. "We have to get traffic in front and get rebounds. Every team says that about the other goalie because the goalies are good anymore. If they see it, they're going to get it. So you've got to make sure that you have screens."
Roaming the area in front of Thomas' crease will be Chara, who at 6-foot-9 is one of the most unique talents the NHL has ever seen. The mammoth Slovakian is obviously a physical presence on the blue line, but he also plays a well- rounded game that includes the NHL's hardest slapshot. Chara's goal total was down this year, as he potted 12 markers, but his 40 assists and 52 total points were both personal bests.
Boston finished sixth in defense this year with 199 goals allowed, 10 more than it surrendered during the 2010-11 campaign. On offense, the Bruins went from 244 goals last season to 260 goals in 2011-12.
Seguin, who was selected by Boston with the second overall pick of the 2010 draft, was a healthy scratch at times during last year's Cup run, but the 20- year-old has since become an indispensable part of the Bruins offense. Seguin had 11 goals and 11 assists in 74 games as a rookie in 2010-11, but this year he led Boston in goals (29) and points (67) while also posting the club's second-best plus/minus rating (plus-34).
Patrice Bergeron is Boston's best all-around forward and is a favorite to win the Selke Trophy this season as the league's top defensive forward. Bergeron finished second to Seguin in points with 64 (22 goals, 42 assists) and led the team with a plus-36 rating.
All told, Boston had six forwards post 20 goals or more, including Brad Marchand, who was second to Seguin with 28 goals. Milan Lucic and David Krejci added 26 and 23 goals, respectively.
Boston will be missing one key player from last year's Cup run and that is forward Nathan Horton, who sat out the final 36 games of the regular season with a concussion. Horton, who had 17 points in 21 games for the Bruins during the 2011 postseason, will miss the entire playoffs.
Meanwhile, the seventh-seeded Capitals enter this postseason after failing to win the Southeast Division this year for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign. As a result, the have their lowest seeding since they were also No. 7 in the 1996 playoffs.
The Caps are still led by star winger Alex Ovechkin, but the Russian sniper is coming off the two worst point totals of his NHL career over the past two seasons. After posting 32 goals and 85 points in 79 games for Washington in 2010-11, the 26-year-old Ovechkin had 38 goals and 65 points in 78 contests this year.
A promising development for the Caps is that Ovechkin played his best hockey of the season down the stretch, scoring 11 of his 38 goals over Washington's final 13 games. Despite never being able to lead Washington past the second round, Ovechkin has compiled 25 goals and 25 assists over 37 career playoff games.
An even bigger concern for Washington than Ovechkin's inconsistent play is the current situation in goal. The Caps will use their third string goaltender Braden Holtby tonight thanks to injuries to both Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. Vokoun is out indefinitely, while Neuvirth is considered "day-to- day" according to head coach Dale Hunter. Dany Sabourin, who hasn't played in an NHL game since the 2008-09 campaign, was recalled from Hershey of the AHL and will likely serve as Holtby's backup.
Holtby is 14-4-3 in 21 career NHL appearances, but the 22-year-old has never played a second in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Washington won three of four meetings against the Bruins during the regular season. Ovechkin failed to score a goal in three games against the Bruins this year, but he did post three assists. Marchand had three goals and two assists in four games against Washington, while Bergeron recorded five assists during the season series.
The Bruins and Capitals have split a pair of all-time playoff meetings. The last time the clubs met in the postseason was in the 1998 conference quarterfinals, when Washington won in six games en route to their first and only Stanley Cup Finals appearance.
Boston was 24-14-3 as the home team this season, while the Capitals had a poor 16-21-4 record as the guest.
Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Saturday in Boston.