BOSTON (CBS) - In assessing where his team stands heading into the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs compared to last year's team that ended Boston's 39-year championship drought, Peter Chiarelli presented an interesting theory.
"I feel good about our team. I think we have more skill because I think our skill has matured from last year," Chiarelli said on a conference call Sunday to preview the upcoming playoff series with the Washington Capitals.
Chiarelli was obviously referring to the emergence of Tyler Seguin as the team's top scorer, plus the continued improvement of Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic to complement the core led by Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci up front.
So far that skill up front has been enough to overcome the loss of the injured Nathan Horton, who Chiarelli officially declared as a long shot to return to the Bruins' lineup in the postseason. Horton's absence is one major difference between last year's Bruins and this year's edition. Despite missing one of their better scorers, this year's Bruins might be in better position to make a deep postseason run.
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You can start with the team's depth on defense, which Chiarelli shored up at the trade deadline with the acquisitions of Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau. Last year, the Bruins had to rely on an inexperienced rookie Steven Kampfer and an over-the-hill Shane Hnidy when they dealt with injuries on their back end. Zanon's arrival has pushed Joe Corvo into the press box, and we're at the point where if injuries keep Adam McQuaid and/or Johnny Boychuk out of the lineup to start the Capitals series, Zanon and Corvo are more-than-capable veteran fill-ins.
While the person manning the Bruins' crease is the same this time around, Tim Thomas definitely holds a bigger edge for the 2012 postseason. Once a goaltender that many doubted could ever advance beyond the second round, Thomas took his play to a whole new level and captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP last year. Not only should he be overflowing with confidence this postseason, opposing would-be scorers are probably already squeezing their sticks knowing how tough it's going to be to get even one goal against Boston.
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There's also the matter of the Bruins' opening-series matchup, which many are fretting over because Boston struggled with Washington all season in stark contrast to the dominance the Bruins showed against Ottawa. However, the Capitals are an enigmatic team that just had to play at least a month of playoff games just to get into the postseason. They might have to go with their third-string goaltender Braden Holtby, center Nicklas Backstrom is still working off the rust after returning from a concussion, and the Washington defense corps led by John Carlson, Mike Green and ex-Bruins backliner Dennis Wideman lacks the type of bulk and physicality necessary to slow Boston.
You could argue last year's seven-game opening-round series with Montreal battle-tested the Bruins for their Cup run. Nonetheless, a shorter first-round series this time around could give the Bruins some much-needed down time to rest up for the long haul. The Bruins should be able to take care of the Caps in no more than five games.
When you combine the Bruins' improvements with their favorable first-round matchup with Washington, it's easy to envision a repeat. Actually turning that dream to reality will be far from easy, but the Bruins are at least equipped to get the job done.
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