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April 10, 2012
NHL Playoffs, First Round
Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals

by Matthew Coller

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The narratives for the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals this season have been more similar than you would think for teams separated by 10 points in the standings. The lows of Bruins and Capitals' roller coaster seasons—both marred by inconsistency—have given each fan base reason to fear a first round out. The highs have given each fans base reason to think that when their team is at its best, they could win the Stanley Cup. The fans are probably right in thinking either way, even if the Bruins are far superior on paper.

Even Strength

Boston finished the season as the league's best 5-on-5 team, scoring 201 goals at even strength. Even more impressive, they allowed the eighth fewest goals against. Washington, on the other hand, ended the season minus-30 at even strength.

Boston offense vs. Washington defense

Boston Bruins offense: +41.8 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Washington defense: -4.0 GVT (Rank: 18th)
Washington goaltending: -3.8 GVT (Rank: 20th)
Total: Boston Bruins: +49.6 GVT

The Bruins have a reputation for being the biggest, baddest team on the block. So big and bad, earlier this season Montreal's Max Pacioretty and Buffalo's Paul Gaustad talked smack over which Bruin tough guy had embarrassed them the most. The tough guys are well and good—and they don't come much tougher (or good) than Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic—but Boston's most frightening player for Washington should be Patrice Bergeron.

Bergeron could be the best two-way forward in the NHL outside of Pavel Datsyuk. He ranked as the league's best 5-on-5 puck possession player. He started in the offensive zone only 47.6 percent of the time, yet finished his shifts in the O-zone 52.3 percent.

This to go along with winning nearly 60 percent of his faceoffs. Bergeron will become an impossible matchup for all of Washington's centers in the circle, especially Nicklas Backstrom, who wins only around 51 percent. Backstrom's on-ice save percentage of just .900 also indicates he may struggle with Boston's top center pushing the puck into the Capitals' zone.

Bergeron is just the beginning. The Bruins run out one excellent 5-on-5 player after the next. The blossoming Tyler Seguin challenged Bergeron for puck possession numbers and finished the year plus-34.

As if the forwards weren't good enough at even strength, Boston's top three defenseman, Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, and Johnny Boychuk were a total of plus-75.

On the Capitals' side, coach Dale Hunter will aim to put the right matchups on the ice with shutdown forwards Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, and Joel Ward against Boston's top lines. They will also look to avoid putting poor two-way players such as Backstrom and Mike Green on the ice against Boston's best.

Washington will need excellent goaltending to have a chance against Boston 5-on-5. But without Tomas Vokoun in the lineup, the chances of Michael Neuvirth or Braden Holtby stealing a series are pretty low.

Advantage: Boston

Washington offense vs. Boston defense

Washington offense: -0.2 GVT (Rank: 14th)
Boston defense: +4.8 GVT (Rank: 8th)
Boston goaltending: +12.6 GVT (Rank: 7th)
Total: Boston Bruins +17.2 GVT

During the super-talented Capitals' struggles, they were either trying to get a coach fired, or playing without one of the most talented offensive players in the NHL in Backstrom. When in the lineup, the Caps' veteran center scored 44 points in 42 games and had a better 5-on-5 points per 60 rate than Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin will clearly be the main focus of both the media and Boston's top pairings—and rightfully so, but to indicate the power potential of the Washington offense, both Alexander Semin and Mathieu Perreault were more successful even strength players in terms of puck possession and points per 60 than Ovechkin in 2011-12.

The Caps have depth, too. Marcus Johansson, Washington's third best offensive center, put together a 46-point season, with 38 coming at 5-on-5. The same could be said for Jason Chimera, who scored 17 of his 20 goals at even strength. The speed of Washington's lower lines could present a problem for Boston's lower line forwards such as Daniel Paille, Brian Rolston, and Gregory Campbell.

As much firepower as the Capitals have, they are facing an impressive core of defensive forwards and quite simply the best defenseman in the NHL in Chara. Not to mention an elite goaltender in Tim Thomas, who had a solid .927 even-strength save percentage this season.

There are also lingering questions about whether Hunter has figured out a system that can maximize his offense. While still above average, Backstrom, Semin, and Ovechkin have not found their elite offensive ways even post-coaching change.

Advantage: Boston

Boston Power Play vs. Washington Penalty Kill

Boston Power Play: +4.4 GVT (Rank: 6th)
Washington Penalty Kill: -6.0 GVT (Rank: 21st)
Total: Boston, + 10.4 GVT

Boston's struggling power play was a topic of conversation in last year's playoffs. This season, things are different, even despite the loss of Nathan Horton to a concussion. The rise of Seguin, who has the second highest 5-on-4 point per 60 on the Bruins, has given Boston a consistent sniper to cause havoc to penalty killers. The Bruins also have the NHL's second highest scoring 5-on-4 defenseman in Chara.

Washington will have their hands full with Chara's 100-plus mph shot, especially with sub-par goaltending.

Advantage: Boston

Washington Power Play vs. Boston Penalty Kill

Washington Power Play: -5.8 GVT (Rank: 23rd)
Boston Penalty Kill: +4.1 GVT (Rank: 9th)
Total: Boston +9.9 GVT

Despite the numbers giving a distinct advantage to Boston, the return of Backstrom and Ovechkin recently playing like Ovechkin could make you think the Capitals might have an advantage.

Ovechkin scored 13 of his 38 goals on the man advantage and Backstrom managed 19 power play points in just 44 games. Dennis Wideman has also offered a solid blueline presence with 20 power play points.

But again, Chara makes things difficult for anyone who dares come near the front of the net. Bergeron and Chris Kelly are both very effective penalty killers. The Capitals, however, may be bailed out by Thomas playing over backup Tuukka Rask, who had an impressive .923 short-handed save percentage this season. That compared to Thomas' average .871 clip.

Advantage: Boston

Season Series Results

As successful as Boston was and as much as Washington struggled, it's surprising to find out the Capitals took three of the four showdowns. However, the Caps' three wins were by a combined four goals. Boston's win was by three goals. The four game total came to 13-12.

Wash 5-3
Bos 4-1
Wash 4-3
Wash 3-2 SO

Injuries and intangibles

Let us reach into the cliche trick bag to say this about the Caps and Bruins first round matchup: it isn't how you've played, but how you are playing now. As of the last 10 games, these two teams are essentially equal, Boston going 7-2-1 and Washington 6-2-2.

Boston made their way out of a sustained funk that caused many to accuse them of being on "cruise control." Leading up to the playoffs, however, they snapped out of it and began playing more like last year's champs.

By the same token, Washington needed a playoff push to finally begin playing to the level of their raw talent. That and Ovechkin performing like a superstar again.

As far as intangibles go, the Capitals have reason to want it more. If they lose in the first round, the same criticisms they've been hearing for the past three years will come out again in full force. They will be dubbed underachievers who lack the heart and pride to ever win a championship. The narrative on Ovechkin's supposed self-centered attitude will again run wild and local media will be tripping over each other's anti-Hunter hyperbole.

(If they win, Hunter's a hero. The guy who got them o'er the hump to greatness. And it was probably because he was a gritty player in his day.)

On Boston's side, it's hard to win two Stanley Cups in a row. As dominant as the numbers appear, they have slumped badly at times. You wonder if they get in trouble early in the series, if the light switch can be turned on. You also question whether the physical toughness they showed during last year's playoffs can be repeated.

And is there any chance the goalie will be a distraction? Thomas went all George Dubya on us about midway through the season and became the center of attention. Could something like that happen again?

Speaking of Thomas, he did not fare as well down the stretch this season when asked to play game after game when Rask was injured. After a long Cup run last season, could he be tired?

As far as injuries go, Horton's absence still hurts the B's. They attempted to replace him with Brian Rolston—who admittedly hasn't been bad, but is far from Horton's presence. Also, if Thomas falters early, it's questionable whether Rask will be in shape to handle the load as he did two years ago.

On Washington's side, it's all about the goalie. Without Vokoun, it could be a rocky road. Without Vokoun or Neuvirth, it's near impossible to beat the league's best offensive team.

Advantage: Washington

Prediction

Boston Bruins: +61.0 GVT (Rank: 1st)
Washington Capitals: -8.0 (Rank: 15th)
Total difference: Boston +69.0

By the numbers, the Capitals have no chance. Zero. None. They are so far behind the Bruins, not only should they not win, they shouldn't come close. But the numbers don't tell the entire story here for either team. Boston is nowhere near as good as the numbers say and Washington nowhere near as bad.

When Ovechkin is motivated—and he does seem motivated—you have to give the Capitals a fighting chance. Down year or not, he still makes the top five or 10 list of most talented players in the NHL.

However, in this case, the Bruins are just too strong.

Boston Bruins in six

Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Matthew by clicking here or click here to see Matthew's other articles.

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