With the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins set to begin the playoffs with a first-round series against the Washington Capitals on Thursday, ESPNBoston.com reporters Joe McDonald and James Murphy answer five key questions heading into the conference quarterfinals:
Other than Alex Ovechkin, who is the key player for the Capitals?
McDonald: Bruins captain Zdeno Chara excels when it comes to matching up against Ovechkin. Chara thrives in that role, but that opens the door for Mathieu Perreault, who had three goals and one assist in the four regular-season meetings between the teams this season. The centerman also is dangerous in the faceoff circle.
Murphy: The Capitals have plenty of weapons beyond Ovechkin, but the biggest question mark lies between the pipes, so I'll answer with a position instead of a specific player. With Tomas Vokoun gone for the season, it will be up to rookie Braden Holtby and the currently injured Michal Neuvirth to serve as the final line of defense. If a team is to go far in the playoffs, it usually needs solid goaltending and right now that is the biggest question mark for the Caps.
Is Washington a better or worse matchup than Ottawa would have been?
McDonald: The Capitals hold a 2-1-1 record against the Bruins this season, while Boston dominated the Senators (5-1-0). But once the puck drops in the playoffs, anything can happen. I don't think Washington's success during the regular season will translate in the first round of the playoffs. No matter the first-round opponent, Boston is ready and could have beaten either team.
Murphy: Over the past few seasons, the Bruins and specifically Tim Thomas have had their way with the Senators, but have been average at best against Washington. With the Capitals seeming to have found their edge and welcoming Nicklas Backstrom back, the Sens would have been a more favorable opponent. The Capitals are the epitome of Jekyll and Hyde, and are more dangerous than Ottawa would have been.
Which unsung Bruin do you expect to have a big impact on the series?
McDonald: Instead of picking one particular player, I choose the Bruins' entire third line. Benoit Pouliot, Chris Kelly and Brian Rolston have played extremely well as a unit and I expect them to continue to have that success in the postseason. Kelly was one of the main factors in the playoffs last season, and he should lead the way again this spring.
Murphy: In the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, one could have made a strong argument for Dennis Seidenberg as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Playing as Chara's blue-line partner, Seidenberg helped create a wall on defense and arguably was the best shutdown rear guard in the playoffs. Seidenberg will be the one to give the Capitals' dangerous offense fits.
What's your prediction for the series?
McDonald: The Bruins will win the series in five games. Boston is confident about its game and will rely on the experience from last spring. The Bruins will take advantage of the Capitals' young goaltender, Holtby, and dominate the series.
Murphy: Last year in the first round, I picked the Canadiens in six games over the Bruins. The Habs gave the Bruins their best, taking them to overtime of Game 7 before losing on a Nathan Horton goal. The first round tends to be the hardest round, and this will not be a cakewalk. But I like the Bruins in six.
How far will the Bruins go in the playoffs this year?
McDonald: The Bruins have a legitimate shot to repeat as Cup champions. I picked them in the preseason to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings (1997, 1998) to win back-to-back titles. While I'm not changing my pick, the New York Rangers could end that dream if the teams face each other in the playoffs.
Murphy: I am sticking to my preseason prediction that the Bruins return to the Cup finals, but I said they would lose to the Los Angeles Kings and I don't see L.A. making it that far. I still see the Bruins losing in the finals, but to the Nashville Predators in a classic seven-game series.