The problem is, they're running into a Bruins team that finally seems to have shaken extended bouts of post-Cup malaise. Boston finished the season on a 9-2-1 roll. You hate to say they flipped the proverbial switch, but their game sure looked a lot more like the smart, disciplined and physically relentless style that propelled them through four series wins last spring -- even in that late-March loss to the Caps.
Are these Bruins as fearsome as last year's champs? Absent the timely goal scoring of Michael Ryder (free agency) and Nathan Horton (likely out for the year), and having never really replaced Mark Recchi, they seem to lack the sheer volume of offensive spark plugs that ignited their Cup run. Still, they scored at a better clip than last season (260-244), thanks to a few surprise efforts, including a strong sophomore campaign from Tyler Seguin (the youngest leading scorer in franchise history), the first 20-goal season of Chris Kelly's career, and the more consistent play of Benoit Pouliot. The Caps may have more flash, but Boston's depth (a league-leading six 20-goal scorers) and five-on-five offense (again, tops in the NHL), seems to give them a sizable edge.
That said, the hopes of these Bruins will rest squarely, as did those of last year's squad, on the Shrek-like shoulders of goaltender Tim Thomas. Assuming his proximity to the White House
One element that might work in Washington's favor: as the seven seed, the pressure is off. The team's key players have wilted in the face of heightened expectations during the past couple of springs, and this seems to be a group that hasn't yet figured out how to perform as front runners. If Hunter can keep them loose and focused, they might finally find the confidence to fight through the rough patches and come out on top.
Still, it's impossible not to fall into his trap, isn't it? You see flashes of that world-class talent, you see his running buddy, Nicklas Backstrom, slotted next to him again on that second line and you can't help but imagine that this spring, finally, will be the one in which Semin breaks out. The year when he fully employs that one-on-one magic to discombobulate a blueline not once, but game after game, resulting in goal after goal, finally delivering the tide-turning performance that everyone knows lives within him.
But this isn't that year...right?
Both defenders are day-to-day at the moment, and Boychuk is considered likely for the opener, but their status has to be a serious concern. Boychuk finished fourth on the team in hits (145), third in blocked shots (133) and fifth in shots taken (171). He's one of those guys who always finds a way to make a contribution. McQuaid might be Boston's nastiest weapon on the back end, a heavy hitter who doesn't mind dropping the gloves.
More to the point, their replacements -- Mike Mottau and Joe Corvo -- are significant downgrades, especially in the jam department. It seems likely the Caps would feast on a third pairing featuring these two, especially when the series shifts to Washington and they earn the benefit of last change.
The Bruins were able to thrive last season because of the seamless integration of their depth players. Getting past the Caps will demand the same.
That right there is the key for a player with a serious injury still fresh in his mind. The Bruins are not a genteel bunch, and Backstrom is one hard hit from a trip to Palookaville. But if he brings that same reckless abandon, and can maintain the sharpness he showed against the Rangers, Backstrom can be the pivotal player in this series.