WILMINGTON, Mass. – At one end of the ice, playoff MVP Tim Thomas will be in goal for the defending champion Boston Bruins. At the other end, Braden Holtby will make his NHL playoff debut in the Washington Capitals’ net.
That should give Boston a big advantage in Thursday night’s playoff opener.
It also could be a trap if the Bruins are overconfident.
“Timmy’s a great goalie,” Boston forward Chris Kelly said Wednesday, “but the minute you start thinking you have advantages over teams, I think you’re setting yourself up for trouble. … We need to be at our best in order to have success, regardless of who they have.”
The Bruins are seeded second in the Eastern Conference but were just 1-2-1 against the seventh-seeded Capitals this season. Holtby, a veteran of just 21 NHL games, played in none of those four. But he almost certainly will start Thursday night because of injuries to Tomas Vokoun (groin) and Michal Neuvirth (left leg). Vokoun didn’t even make the trip to Boston.
The Bruins say they must remain patient and play their game but want to test Holtby early.
“We know he doesn’t have a wealth of experience,” centre David Krejci said. “We’re going to put lots of pucks on him and try to make him nervous.”
It may not work.
“He’s a calm guy,” Washington defenceman Karl Alzner said. “We just tell him that it’s the same game, same as the regular season, and not to worry about it.”
Holtby, a fourth-round draft choice by the Capitals in 2008, started five of their last 10 games. He played in seven games this season, going 4-2-1 with a 2.48 goals against average. He made his NHL debut last season, playing 14 games with a 1.79 goals against average.
So he has reason to be confident.
“I’m just ready to go out there and do what I can to be successful,” Holtby said. “I’m not here just to wear a jersey. This is my goal to show that I can win games here, especially in the playoffs. And it’s unfortunate with the injuries that we’ve had.”
That confidence extends to his teammates.
“I don’t think he’s too scared of anybody,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “He can handle his own.”
Holtby is just 21 years old. Thomas turns 38 on Sunday.
But the Bruins goalie hasn’t changed much from last season when he had a 2.00 goals-against average and played in all 25 post-season games. He posted a 2.36 clip this season and started 55 games, the same number as last season.
“I don’t think he’s changed at all,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “He’s a guy who still continues to thrive on challenges and always takes the negatives and turns it into a positive, and loves to prove people wrong. So, he hasn’t changed.”
Nor have the Bruins. Their approach to the post-season after winning the Stanley Cup is the same.
“I know we’re the defending champs,” Kelly said, “but … this this is a new year and one thing I’ve learned is people quickly forget what’s happened in the past. By no means do we think we’re the heavy favourites.”
Especially with defenceman Mike Green and first-line centre Nicklas Backstrom back with the Capitals. Green played in just 31 games while dealing with ankle and groin injuries and abdominal surgery. Backstrom, who had 14 goals in 42 games, returned on March 31 after a concussion sidelined him for nearly three months.
But a concussion will keep Bruins right wing Nathan Horton out of the playoffs. He’s missed the last 36 games after scoring 17 goals in the first 46, and general manager Peter Chiarelli announced Wednesday that his season was over.
“He’d be improving and then he’d have some symptoms,” Chiarelli said. “They weren’t huge symptoms but they would always come up at some point after three, four, five, six days of positive stuff. … Sometimes it would just be a fogginess, sometimes he wouldn’t feel right and sometimes there’d be a big headache.”
The Bruins are used to playing without Horton, although they were 31-12-3 when he played and 18-17-1 when he didn’t. But they finished the season on a 9-3 run.
“You’re going against the best from last year,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. “So it’s definitely a challenge.”
The Bruins hope their playoff experience can help.
“There was no better feeling than ending the season the way that we did last year. So you want to do whatever you can to relive that moment,” left wing Milan Lucic said. “What we learned the most is we never looked too far ahead of what we had to do and that’s our mindset right now.
“All our focus is focused on Game 1 and Game 1 only.”