This one needs no set-up, so let's dive right in...
Question 1: The regular season wrapped up, just as we all expected. Or not. The nice thing for the Caps, as opposed to prior years, is that the past is the past and it has no bearing on the future in and of itself. How do you feel about the Caps entering the playoffs, given the way the season went, and the way it closed out?
Rob Parker: There's no real reason to think the playoffs will see a much different team than the regular season did. Fans are riding high on a bit of late-season euphoria following clinching the playoffs and a fairly convincing win over the conference-leading Rangers, but two games simply cannot erase the mediocrity that has been the 2011-12 season. That said, Dale Hunter's entire message since he got here has been to "win playoff style hockey games." Now he has the chance to show that he can get the team to do it, the chance to show that his style actually can succeed in the playoffs. The Caps have been slowly but steadily improving under Hunter (though after setting such a low bar to start, that might not say much) so maybe the Caps are rounding into form at the right time. The thing that gives me the most hope is that Nicklas Backstrom has looked better with each game he's played since his return, and that the last 2-3 games have been the best games Mike Green and John Carlson have played in quite some time. Those three guys will all need to be at or near the top of their game if the Caps are going to have the long playoff run the fans anticipated back in training camp.
JP: You say there's no real reason to think the playoffs will be much different than the regular season, then tick off their best player returning and returning to form after missing half the season and their two best puck-moving blueliners playing their best hockey in ages. Those sound like real reasons to me. Add in Alex Ovechkin having a great March and Alex Semin playing some of his most-inspired hockey, and I think there's plenty of reason to expect a bit more than we generally saw over the first 82 games. Of course, those expectations would probably be in line with what we'd fairly expected all along, which is probably still a bit short of what we got in the recent "up" years.
RP: Fair points, J.P. I'd just note that Backstrom was playing great hockey when the Caps got Bruce Boudreau fired and then looked like they'd set a league record of futility under Dale Hunter. Carlson's two games aren't enough to convince me the sophomore slump is over, either.
Becca H: This is probably the first season since before the lockout where I've gone into the playoffs with absolutely no expectations for the Caps. Obviously I hope for the best, but if they should lose in the first round it won't be nearly as painful as it's been in recent years - as Rob points out, the regular season was incredibly disappointing and set the bar pretty low. At the same time it's hard not to be a little optimistic, because the team that kicks off the postseason tonight bares little resemblance to the one we've been watching most of the year. Things have been improving, the team's looked a little better, and the guys who are supposed to set the tone and lead the way are looking like their old selves. If that continues and if they finally learn how to elevate their game - both as a team and as individuals - there might be hope yet.
Pepper: The lack of expectations is precisely why I have hope for this team, this spring, to make a deep run. We've seen the foundational players of the Caps, or at least many of them, struggle over the last two seasons with lofty predictions, having been described as "mentally fragile." This time around, there seems to be far less pressure to win even the first round, let alone the Holy Grail. With a sub-par season, a top center trying to return to form post-concussion, a goalie with no NHL playoff experience, an NHL-rookie coach whose methods have been questioned more than any other Caps' coach since Bruce Cassidy, starting on the road against the juggernaut, defending Cup champs seems an insurmountable task, all the makings of a short series. But maybe this team taking the ice in a hostile TD Garden tonight with "nothing to lose" is just the environment they need.
David Getz: At the risk of claiming the title of site cynic, the Caps have made me a whole lot more optimistic in the last few weeks, but that really only means two things to me at this point: One, I don't expect them to get embarrassed and, Two, I think they have a chance of getting out of the first round. That said, I still believe in the team's core and overall talent, and if they can have a strong first round - win in say five or six - I think all bets are off.
Question 2: What are the keys to the playoffs? What lessons or developments from the regular season, or past playoffs, can the Caps draw on as they enter the playoffs on the road for the first time since Alex Ovechkin joined the team?
Kareem E.: In the previous two playoff seasons, you could argue that the Caps didn't need a hot goalie to beat its opponents - as long as the goaltending was average they could out-score the other team. They never got that in the losses to Montreal and Tampa. This year, they absolutely need a goalie to get hot. The number one key to the playoffs is if Braden Holtby can cover up for the team's propensity to make defensive zone mistakes. If he can, the Caps should be able to squeak out enough goals to surprise a few people.
BH: I'm not sure that the propensity to make mistakes calls for a hot goalie as much as it calls for the team to...y'know, stop making mistakes. Obviously it'd be great if Holtby can steal a game for them but ultimately whether they win or lose needs to be determined by the team playing well - hot goalies can cool off as quickly as they heat up, but playing a solid game with limited mistakes is the key to longevity. And because no team is perfect and there will be breakdowns, I think the key for the Caps is going to be how they respond to and rebound from the mistakes they do make. It's all mental for this team; if a bad turnover or a flubbed pass results in a goal by the other team, they have to find the mental fortitude to know that it's just one goal and they can come back. Going into a shell because they've given up the lead is a recipe for disaster in the regular season, let alone in the playoffs.
RP: The key for the Caps is to limit the glaring breakdowns. Those type of mistakes have cost the Caps in playoffs past, especially in the Tampa Bay and Montreal series. Dale Hunter wants the team playing "coin flip hockey" and if you give the opposition easy chances by making mental mistakes you really hurt your odds of having the game come out in your favor. I agree that Holtby has to be very good, definitely better than average, for the Caps to win. I do disagree that the Caps didn't get average goaltending against Tampa or Montreal. The problem was that all they got was average goaltending in those series, and the numerous breakdowns the Caps had tended to end up in the net, whereas the opposing goalies bailed out their teams.
JP: Well, I think you two nailed the big "either/or" - either they've got to eliminate the mental errors or Braden Holtby has to erase all of them (while taking care of everything he should take care of). But I'm going to add two keys. First, they need to get pucks out, in and on, and by that I mean out of the defensive zone quickly and cleanly (no fumbled, failed clears), into the Boston zone (no neutral zone turnovers) and on Tim Thomas, preferably with traffic. Second, they need to find a balance between standing up for themselves and staying disciplined when faced with the Bruins' physicality (legal and otherwise). They'd have likely had more success in the past few years if these keys had come to fruition.
DG: Consistency is going to another key. The Bruins have enough depth and good at so many things that they're likely to seize whatever opportunity is given them. A poor period or two could kill the Caps before things even really get going, whether it includes an aforementioned "glaring breakdown" or not.
Question 3: What about the Bruins specifically concerns you? What do you think the Caps need to do to dethrone the defending champions (or "champians" if Brad Marchand's tattoo is any indication)?
RP: The Bruins are a team that has succeeded with good depth and, as has been documented ad nauseum, likes to bully teams. The Caps have not had such great depth this season (or at least not played up to the depth they seem to have on paper) and Caps fans have long questioned the team toughness and willingness to stick up for each other. When Nick Backstrom can take an elbow to the face with nary a response, what's going to happen when Milan Lucic runs Braden Holtby? I think Holtby will have no problem trying to defend himself, but if a goalie is defending himself there's a serious problem. Plus, if Holtby does go down... game over. I think the Caps may have some trouble matching up with the way the Bruins roll their three lines. If the Caps forwards could play like we thought they would all season, the way they look on paper, that Boston depth looks much less formidable. But how often do players look subpar for an entire season and then turn it on in the playoffs? It's not a safe bet to make.
JP: Yep, depth (moreseo up front than on the blueline) and physicality. Even-strength play will likely decide this series, and both of those factors make the Bruins an awfully dangerous team at fives (best in the East, in fact).
BH: As has been pointed out, the depth is a little scary - not because there are 12 guys who have high-level skill on the Boston roster, because there aren't. The Bruins have no Alex Ovechkin equivalent, no Nick Backstrom equivalent. What they do have is a bunch of guys who will outwork the other team, and in the playoffs hard work with a bit of skill will win out over high-level skill with just a pinch of hard work any day. The Caps' stars need to be getting their noses dirty just as much as the Jay Beagles and Jeff Halperns on the team right from the start or else they'll be dead in the water.
DG: 'Depth' was the first thing that came to mind for me too, I have to admit, but beyond that, it's the fact Boston can beat you in so many ways. They don't rely solely on their goaltending, physicality, speed, or special teams, and even if one facet of their game is slightly off, they're likely to be more than competent in the others and have the ability to adapt their game to play the style to win an individual series - or an individual game.
Question 4: Who is the key player for the Caps in this series?
KE: Holtby, followed by Alex Semin. We know the Caps first line will have their hands full going up against Chara, but they'll hold their own. It's up to the second line to drive puck possession, score goals and minimize goals against. That's on Semin. He's getting paid like a star player, it's time he stepped up and played like one.
JP: I can't disagree with Holtby or Semin, but I'll go a different direction and say John Carlson. Despite a disappointing and difficult sophomore season, he'll likely stick with Karl Alzner in the Caps' top pair, and as the puck-mover of the two, he's going to have to make quick, smart decisions and execute near-flawlessly on those decisions or the team could be sunk fast. No pressure, kid.
RP: Holtby is an obvious answer, the goalie is always a guy that can swing a playoff series. But the skater that's most important is Nick Backstrom. I don't know that I agree with GMGM that the Caps can beat any team in the east with Nick healthy, but he sure does change the complexion up front. The Bruins have two very good centers, and if the Caps entered the series with 0 very good centers it'd be a recipe for a blood bath. Nick needs to be great; saying he needs to win the head-to-head matchup with (likely) Bergeron or Krejci probably overstates the case, but if Nick has pedestrian numbers the Caps won't advance.
BH: Backstrom's my choice, as well. The Bruins do have two very good centers, but as I said above, neither is at the same level as Backstrom - and that's not putting down Bergeron or Krejci, who are both very talented. Backstrom has a way of just calming things down and making them simple, of winning board battles and keeping possession and making his linemates look good. His presence gives the Caps a very formidable top line that can get the puck moving, get Tim Thomas moving, and take advantage of some of the Bruins' weaknesses in their own zone.
DG: Joel Ward, obviously. Isn't that why he's here? Not really, Backstrom gets my vote too.
Question 5: So, with all that said, who do you have winning the series?
BH: I'm going full-on homer and I don't care. Do I expect them to win? Perhaps not. But I think the Caps have a chance to do what practically none of the "experts" think they can do and take the series in 6 or 7 games.
RP: The little kid in me would love to believe the Caps are in for some great karmic retribution, getting repaid all the horrible playoff luck they've gotten over the years, and then some. But the rational adult in me realizes that we can't let the (mild) euphoria of games 81-82 erase the lessons we learned in games 1-80. This is still a mediocre team, one that was out-scored over the course of the season. And this team is playing the team with the best goal differential in the league. Even if that goal differential was padded back in a torrid November, the Bruins are a deep and talented team, with plenty of playoff success to draw upon. Still, I'm a Caps fan at heart, so I can't just count this team out. If I wasn't such a homer I'd say Bruins in five. But I am a homer. I think the Caps will play well enough at home to pick up some wins, and I don't think the Caps let the B's close them out in Verizon Center. So Bruins in seven.
EB: I am looking forward to this series to see what Dale Hunter, playoff coach can do. He's had four good looks at the Bruins, their systems, and their goalies, and beaten them three times out of four. Yeah yeah, no Stanky Leg Shootout Special in the playoffs, but he does have Nick Backstrom back so overtime need not be quite so scary. I want to see if Dale will continue to double down on line-matching and collapsing defensive shells, or if he chooses a more aggressive approach with a one-goal coin-flip lead. My prediction: If the series goes only six games, it will be the Bruins skating into the next round. But if it goes seven, the Caps will prevail and advance. Because really. It's about freaking time.
JP: The Caps don't need to play a perfect series to win; the Bruins showed at times this season that they're willing to help an opponent out. But a lot of that can be chalked up to injuries and a defending champ getting bored with the monotony of a long regular season. They seem to have flipped the switch back on lately, and obviously know what it takes to win at this time of year. The match-up isn't horribly one-sided on paper, but in terms of systems, execution, and mental toughness, Boston has a fairly sizable edge, so I've got them taking the series in six games.
KE: Every bit of logic tells me that the Bruins are the better team, possess better goaltending, are deeper, more physical and mentally tougher than our fragile boys in red, white and blue. My brain says Bruins in 6, if it even takes that long. But my heart tells me that the pressure-less situation will help the Caps play to their potential and take the Bruins in 7. Let’s go with my heart.
DG: Bruins, in five. I hate to say it, but I just think Boston's that good.
Pepper: Caps in 6. I agree that the pressure-less situation will play to the team's advantage. Who knows, maybe they're hungrier and more desperate than we think and can find another, more fine-tuned gear, thriving on the element of surprise rather than being crushed by the weight of expectations. So go fearlessly, Caps. "It's a good day to lose." Hanta yo, baby!