The 2011-12 regular season was an inconsistent one for the Boston Bruins, but the defending Stanley Cup champions hope to be on an upward trajectory when the NHL's postseason gets underway.
The Bruins won their first Stanley Cup title since 1972 last spring, outlasting heavily-favored Vancouver in seven games. Boston has displayed that championship form at certain points during the 2011-12 season, while at other times head coach Claude Julien's club has appeared lost.
Boston was just 3-7 to start the season before going on a stellar 25-4-1 run that lasted from the beginning of November until early January.
During that two-month tear it seemed like the Bruins were destined to become the first NHL club to win consecutive Cups since Detroit pulled off the feat in 1997 and '98. However, the hot streak was quickly followed by an even longer slump than the one that plagued Boston at the start of the year,
But, after going 12-16-2 from Jan. 14-March 15, the Bruins were able to right the ship in time to win the Northeast Division title, finishing the season on a 9-2-1 run.
On paper, Boston looks a lot like the championship squad from last spring. 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.
One concern for Thomas heading into the playoffs is that due to an injury to steady backup Tuukka Rask he had to play in more games down the stretch this season than he did at the end of the 2010-11 campaign. He will turn 38 years old during this series, but Thomas is still only one year removed from winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. Thomas won the postseason MVP award after going 16-9 with a 1.98 GAA and .940 percentage in 25 playoff games last spring.
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.
Chara led Boston with an even 25 minutes of ice time per game and his skating partner Dennis Seidenberg was less than a minute behind in that category. Seidenberg was fourth among Bruins defenseman in scoring this season with 23 points. Joe Corvo and Andrew Ference added 25 and 24 points, respectively, from the blue line.
Johnny Boychuk, who was third on Boston's blue line in ice time this season after Chara and Seidenberg, is expected to be ready for Game 1 of this series despite sitting out the final two games of the regular season with a sprained ankle.
Boston finished sixth in defense this year with 199 goals allowed this year, 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, has not yet been cleared for contact and is expected to miss the entire playoffs.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS (7th seed, East)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 42-32-8
2011 PLAYOFFS: Defeated NY Rangers 4-1 in conference quarterfinals; lost to Tampa Bay 4-0 in conference semifinals.
(Sports Network) - After four straight years of following up dominant regular seasons with disappointing playoff runs, things changed for the Washington Capitals in 2011-12. Unfortunately for the Capitals, the difference this season was that the club struggled to even make the playoffs.
Washington failed to win the Southeast Division this year for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign, as the Florida Panthers claimed the division crown for their first playoff appearance since the spring of 2000. As a result, the seventh-seeded Caps enter this postseason with 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.
Ovechkin, Washington's captain, was criticized by many for a lack of passion this season and his slow start to 2011-12 may have hastened the dismissal of head coach Bruce Boudreau, who was fired after Washington went 12-9-1 to start the season. Dale Hunter took over for Boudreau behind the bench and did not fare much better, leading Washington to a 30-23-7 record over the final four- plus months of the season.
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 may be forced to use their third string goaltender at the start of this series thanks to injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth.
Vokoun would have been the No. 1, but the veteran is out indefinitely with a strained groin suffered in his last game on March 29. Neuvirth, meanwhile, is dealing with an unspecified lower-body injury that cause him to miss Washington's final game of the regular season.
If Neuvirth, who has been deemed day-to-day by Hunter, is unable to start Game 1, then the Capitals will use 22-year-old Braden Holtby, who is 14-4-3 in 21 career NHL appearances, but has never played a second in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Neuvirth was 13-13-5 with a 2.82 GAA in 38 games (30 starts) this season. The 24-year-old Czech backstop is 4-5 with a 2.34 GAA in nine career postseason games.
Washington had just one player post more than a point-per-game this season and that was centerman Nicklas Backstrom. The Swedish pivot had 44 points (14g, 30a) in 42 games during a campaign that was cut short by a lengthy absence due to a concussion. Backstrom returned for the final four games of the regular season and posted one goal and one assist over that stretch.
Despite missing nearly half the season, Backstrom finished fourth among Washington forwards in points. Alexander Semin was second to Ovechkin with 54 points (21g, 33a) and Marcus Johansson was third with 46 points on 14 goals and 32 assists.
Overall, Washington's 218 goals this season was the 14th-best total in the NHL.
Dennis Wideman led the Capitals' blue line in both goals (11) and assists (35), but he is primarily an offensive defenseman. Fellow blueliner Mike Green, another offense-first rearguard, had just three goals and four assists while playing in just 32 games during an injury-plagued season. Since posting an amazing 31 goals in 68 games in 2008-09, Green has recorded 30 tallies in 156 regular-season contests over the past three campaigns.
Elsewhere on the blue line, the Caps have a couple of solid youngsters in John Carlson and Karl Alzner, who are 22 and 23 years of age, respectively. Carlson was second to Wideman with 32 points from the back end this season, while Alzner had one goal, 16 assists and a team-best plus-12 rating.
Veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik was a plus-11 in 68 games for the Capitals this season.
Whether or not the Bruins can regain the form that made them Cup champions last year remains to be seen, but Boston shouldn't need its "A" game to get past the Capitals.
Washington did win three of four meetings against the Bruins this year, but two of those three wins came during Boston's dreadful two-month stretch from early-January to mid-March.
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.
A team with Boston's dedication to defense should be able to make quick work of a Washington club that has little secondary scoring to complement Ovechkin. Add in an uncertain situation in net for the Caps and this could wind up being the most lopsided series of the opening round.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bruins in 5