BOSTON | Without fail, the Washington Capitals are underdogs against the Boston Bruins. Each time they’ve met in the past 14 months, the Caps have been below the Bruins in the standings and not expected to win.
Yet the Caps seem to have the Bruins’ number, winning four of the past five regular-season meetings to go along with a playoff upset. Yet it’s hard to figure exactly why they match up so well.
“Maybe they take us lightly? I’m not too sure,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It’s pretty amazing what we’ve been able to do against them. Boston’s a team that we get very, very excited to play against.”
Perhaps the opposite isn’t true, even if center Nicklas Backstrom wonders being on the wrong side of a 3-0 comeback March 5 will motivate the Bruins on Saturday afternoon at TD Garden.
The playoff series happened almost a year ago, and the Caps are in an even tougher spot now, just trying to climb into contention while the Bruins are sitting pretty in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Might that have something to do with the Caps’ dominance?
“Anytime you’re playing against a team in the position in the standings that we are, maybe teams kind of overlook you a little bit,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “I think they know that we’re a good hockey team. We haven’t changed much, roster-wise, from where we were last year. Hopefully they respect us.”
It’s hard not to respect an opponent that has won eight of the past 12 meetings, counting the regular season and playoffs. And while Boston presents an intimidating look with the likes of defenseman Zdeno Chara and forward Milan Lucic, the Caps aren’t scared.
“I think we have the size up front that can match them,” coach Adam Oates said. “We have some big forwards, we have some guys that can play physical if they want to do that.”
Oftentimes against the Bruins, it’s not about wanting to play a physical game. Boston has a way of asserting its style and forcing other teams to work just as hard.
Some Caps players love that.
“They’re fun to play against at home because their fans are really loud, animated,” Alzner said. “And they’re also fun to play when they’re on the road because they come hard and they try to intimidate you. It’s a personal challenge to be able to stand up to that.”
Alzner said if it were as easy to get amped up against every opponent as it is against the Bruins, “we’d be in good shape.” Instead, the Caps have 25 points, which has them 12th in the East and seven points out of a playoff spot.
Even after Thursday’s comeback victory at the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington is in a desperate position going into the weekend back-to-back at the Bruins and against the Buffalo Sabres.
Perhaps there’s no better opponent for this desperate team than Boston.
“I think they’re always great games,” said defenseman Steve Oleksy, who made his NHL debut March 5 when the Caps erased a three-goal deficit to beat the Bruins. “Obviously the last one was a huge, character win for our team, coming back down from three goals, especially against a team like Boston and with an OT thriller like that. That’s a win that might set the stage for the rest of the year, especially against that team.”
Getting to the playoffs could prove to be a journey of a thousand strides for the Caps, who dug themselves quite the hole with a horrid start. The next stride is yet again the most important one, and it’s a big challenge at a Bruins team that’s 9-2-1 at home this year.
It’s not hard to see why Boston has 39 points in 25 games.
“They got some real tough D-men to play against, they got some good forwards with some speed. I think we match up well with the speed,” Brouwer said. “Down low we try and play as tough and as gritty as we can against those big D-men.”
Now the Caps are simply hoping they can keep up this run of success against the Bruins because this meeting comes at a time when they need points badly.
“I think things have just kind of gone our way,” Brouwer said. “We had some lucky goals and good comebacks, and I think the rivalry that we developed with them last year in the playoff series fuels it as well.”
There’s no shortage of fuel for the Caps, who got past the Bruins last year on the strength of Braden Holtby’s goaltending and Alex Ovechkin’s physical play.
“I mean, who else took on [Dennis] Seidenberg, who else took on Chara, who else took on [Brad] Marchand and ]Patrice] Bergeron?” Oates said. “I mean, that’s one of his gifts. Physical play is part of his gifts.”
Ideally the Caps don’t want to get dragged into the Bruins’ kind of game, full of pushing and shoving and hits at every turn. But they’re prepared to do it.
“They’re a defensive-first team, and they make it difficult. You’ve got to be willing to win 1-0,” Oates said. “If you’re not, you’re going to get blown out of the building.”
The one thing the Caps have done consistently in the past year or so is not get blown out of any building by the big, bad Bruins. Focus is essential to that continuing.
“We have to play our game. That’s what we talk about every day: It’s about us,” Oates said. “Obviously we show video on what they do, but it’s still about us. We have to show up and do our job.”