April 6, 2012

Bruins may have made mistake in not choosing playoff foe

By Jesse Connolly

When the final horn sounded on Thursday night at Scotiabank Place and the Bruins gathered around Anton Khudobin for an obligatory round of high-fives and head-pats, most fans of the Black and Gold were happy to see the club notch another win and reach the 100-point mark for the third time in four seasons. 

Brooks Laich celebrates a goal during the Capitals 4-3 win over the Bruins on March 10. (Getty)

But those keeping an eye on the Eastern Conference standings and thinking ahead to potential playoff matchups probably wished the outcome had been a little different.

Had Ottawa claimed at least a point, Boston would’ve been guaranteed to play the Senators in the first round. Because they didn’t, as Boston earned a 3-1 win, the B’s opponent still remains undetermined with one final regular-season contest to go.

This of course leads us to the question: Should the Bruins have made sure the Senators didn’t go home empty-handed on Thursday? Players and coaches will likely throw out the age-old clichés that you play to win and it doesn’t matter who you have to face in the postseason, but the fact remains that the B’s match up with Ottawa a helluva lot better than the lone potential alternative.

With Thursday’s victory, Boston improved to 5-1-0 on the year against the Sens. Craig Anderson – who didn’t start the season series finale but undoubtedly will be Ottawa’s go-to goalie come playoff time – allowed 14 goals in three starts against the B’s this season. In his career, Anderson is 3-8-0 with a 3.45 goals-against average against Boston.

He’ll be opposed, of course, by Tim Thomas, who has absolutely owned Ottawa since virtually the day he was born. The reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner is 23-9-2 lifetime against the Sens (his highest win total against any club). In 34 games against Ottawa, Thomas owns a 1.98 goals-against average, a .937 save percentage and has recorded six shutouts.

On paper, everything sounds infinitely rosy, which makes it all the more curious why the B’s would leave open the possibility of playing the Capitals.

After beating the Panthers on Thursday, Washington could still move up to seventh in the conference and play the B’s if they win their finale against the Rangers and the Senators fail to get a point against the Devils. Both games take place on Saturday.

Granted, the Capitals – who also can still overtake the Panthers for the division lead and the No. 3 seed -- aren’t without their warts. Tomas Vokoun, who got the lion’s share of starts for them this season, is out with a groin injury. His replacement, Michal Neuvirth left Thursday’s game against Florida with a lower-body ailment, forcing Washington to turn to Braden Holtby – who spent 90 percent of the season with the club’s AHL affiliate in Hershey.

Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the B’s dropped 3-of-4 games against Washington this season, nor that the Caps have considerably better depth both up front and on the back-end than the Senators. Furthermore, the Caps have gone 9-4-2 in their last 15 games and have center Nicklas Backstrom – a career point-per-game player – back in the lineup after a nearly three-month-long absence (concussion). The Senators, meanwhile, are just 5-6-1 in their last 12 contests.

Taking a proverbial dive on Thursday night against Ottawa may have gone against the unwritten code, but if the B’s find themselves in a dog fight against the Capitals in the opening round of the playoffs, they may regret their decision to pass on handpicking their foe.