The 2011-12 point totals of Alex Ovechkin (65), Alexander Semin (54), and Nicklas Backstrom (44) are nowhere near the career highs the three sharpshooters boast on their respective résumés.
Yet when the Bruins open the playoffs against the Capitals Thursday night at TD Garden, all of those wearing Black and Gold will be wary of the offensive punishment the Washington forwards can inflict.
“We have to shut down their skill between Ovechkin, Semin, and Backstrom,’’ Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said during a Sunday conference call. “They’ve got good skill on the back end. They’re a high-end, skilled team. It’s really important that we play the gaps tight in all three zones with these guys.’’
Just about every scenario had sketched Ottawa into the Bruins’ first-round crosshairs. The Senators only had to claim 1 point in their last two games. The Senators lost their first chance in Game No. 81, when they dropped a 3-1 home decision to the Bruins.
On Saturday, Ottawa lost to New Jersey, 4-2. The same day, Florida beat Carolina, 4-1, and Washington thumped the Rangers, 4-1. Because of Saturday’s developments, the Senators tumbled into eighth place.
Ottawa could have been a first-round pushover. Instead, the Bruins will begin their Stanley Cup defense against the Capitals and their hotshots, regardless of how far their offensive games have declined. The Bruins went 1-2-1 against Washington in the regular season.
“We’re facing a pretty formidable foe to start,’’ Chiarelli said. “We haven’t matched up well against Washington. We caught them when we were in a bit of a downswing each time. It’s going to be a good test to start.’’
Ovechkin is the catalyst. The left wing’s best year was in 2007-08, when he racked up 65 goals. This season, Ovechkin’s scored a mere 38. Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara’s primary task will be to shadow Ovechkin and make sure he doesn’t get close to goaltender Tim Thomas. Dennis Seidenberg also will see plenty of shifts against Ovechkin.
Semin (21-33-54) will be the secondary goal-scorer. He is off his 40-goal pace from 2009-10. But Semin still has one of the league’s deadlier shots.
The wild card is Backstrom. The ace playmaker missed 40 games because of a concussion suffered Jan. 3 when ex-Flame Rene Bourque sharpened his elbow on Backstrom’s head. Backstrom returned March 31. In the regular-season finale, Backstrom scored a goal and had an assist, his first points since his return. If Backstrom can regain his touch, he can play at a point-per-game pace.
“Backstrom’s certainly one of their best players, if not the best sometimes,’’ Chiarelli said. “Even if they don’t have a 100-percent Backstrom, a lesser percent of Backstrom is still a really good player. He’s able to slow the game down a bit and distribute pucks to their shooters. They have their skill. He’s going to enable their skill and shooters.’’
Washington also has some up-front grit in Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, and Matt Hendricks. On defense, Karl Alzner and John Carlson complement each other’s strengths. Ex-Bruin Dennis Wideman will log heavy minutes.
This has been a season of flux for the formerly high-flying Capitals. Former coach Bruce Boudreau had been attempting to transform the club from its high-octane, no-defense ways to a more responsible, playoff-ready personality. It didn’t work. On Nov. 28, 2011, the Capitals fired Boudreau, the potty-mouthed everyman, and replaced him with Dale Hunter.
The ex-Capital star’s reign hasn’t been flawless. Hunter has taken minutes away from veterans Mike Knuble, Jeff Schultz, and John Erskine. Hunter already has a reputation of being a poor communicator, which might be Boston counterpart Claude Julien’s greatest strength.
But the Capitals played their best when it mattered. In their last five games, starting with a 3-2 shootout win over the Bruins at the Garden, Washington went 4-1-0. They qualified for the playoffs despite their top two goalies limping off the ice.
Against the Bruins March 29, Tomas Vokoun departed mid-game because of a groin injury. Three games later, ex-Bruin Marco Sturm fell on Michal Neuvirth’s leg. Third-stringer Braden Holtby has been the go-to goalie since then. It is unknown whether Vokoun or Neuvirth will be available for Game 1.
The 22-year-old Holtby has only 21 career NHL appearances and has never appeared in an NHL playoff game.
“We’ve seen young goalies steal series. So that can happen too,’’ Chiarelli said. “Generally speaking, when a goalie is inexperienced going into the playoffs, there’s some nervousness. You have to be opportunistic and get at it right away.’’
The Bruins’ lineup isn’t certain. Johnny Boychuk (knee) and Adam McQuaid (eye/head) are day-to-day. Neither of the defensemen is a guarantee for Game 1. Mike Mottau and Joe Corvo, who projected to be healthy scratches, will be on call if needed Thursday.
Tuukka Rask (abdomen/groin) may not be ready for Game 1. If Rask is unavailable, Anton Khudobin will be Thomas’s backup. Marty Turco, ineligible for postseason play, will not serve as a practice goalie. Turco will bid his goodbyes to the Bruins later this week.
Up front, the Bruins have an extra forward. Jordan Caron has played on all four lines, but the youngster could be the healthy scratch Thursday.
The Bruins’ biggest advantage, however, is an intangible. Only one team is entering the playoffs as the defending champ.
“The experience we’ve gained from winning, the ability to avoid panic, is an attribute that’s carried over also,’’ Chiarelli said. “I’ve seen that come out the last 7-8 games. The confidence you get from having won will be important.
“You can never underestimate the value of experience. I’ve seen that grow in our group. We’ve gained a lot from winning the Cup. Having said all that, it’s real tough to repeat. It’s going to be a challenge.’’