Mental Game Breakdown
#2 Boston vs. #7 Washington
Advantages Boston: Experience, Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, Been there/done that, hot down the stretch
The defending Cup champion Bruins are coming in to the 2012 playoffs playing well. They finished the season winning 7 out of 10 games. During this stretch Goaltender Tim Thomas looked like the 2011 playoffs version of himself which is bad news for the rest of the field. If Thomas is hot in the playoffs it will give the B's the kind of confidence needed to go on another Cup run.
Boston is now an experienced playoff with guys all over the lineup who have performed on the biggest stage. Winning a Finals Game 7 in Vancouver is about as much confidence as you can get in the NHL. Lucic, Krejci, Horton, Marchand, Bergeron, the list goes on with guys that can score and play excellent defense. The biggest figure will defenseman Zdeno Chara who can totally shut down the opposing team's best line. When the Bruins are on their game, and I think they will be, they are dominating and intimidating. They frustrate their opponent by giving them very few opportunities on Tim Thomas and controlling the play in the offensive zone.
Barriers Boston: Defending the Cup, Large number of games last two seasons
To be honest I don't see significant mental barriers for this Boston team. There is always the pressure of the defending the Cup, but I think Boston will handle it well. The Bruins know how to play under pressure, it will just be a different kind of pressure where anything less than the Finals will be a big disappointment. The Bruins could struggle if the large number of games they have played this season and last catch up to them. If Thomas lets in a few "leaky" goals the B's could be vulnerable, but you can say that about any team.
Advantages Washington: Won their way in, expectations lowered, won season series against Boston
The Washington Capitals, pre-season favorite of many, are just excited to be in the playoffs. Give the Caps credit. The ship was sinking, but they were able to right it down the stretch going 6-2-2 and almost overtake Florida for the #3 seed. Washington has struggled with high expectations the last few years. Now it would seem the pressure is off. They are an underdog and a dangerous one at that. The Caps have guys like Ovechkin and Backstrom that can score on any goalie. From a mental standpoint the Caps are in a good position. The expectations are not too high so they should be able to go out and be aggressive. They also won the season series against Boston, three games to one, which should give them belief that they can win this series. As it is for every lower seed, winning one of the first two games on the road will be huge. The Caps will need to be better on the road and be prepared for the Boston onslaught early in Game 1.
Barriers Washington: Goalie?, Scoring, Previous playoff history
For all of the reasons you can derive an upset in this match up, I believe the mental barriers for Washington are substantial. First and foremost, the goaltending is unproven in the playoffs. Whether it is Vokoun, Neuvirth, or Holtby, the guy between the pipes needs to prove that he will be consistent and allow the Caps the comfort of not worrying about giving up goals. Also, the Caps have not had the best of playoff runs. Several times the last few years they were the higher seed and lost. With the below average regular season they had do the Caps have the belief they need to upset the defending champs? Time will tell, especially in those inevitable moments when Boston is putting on a huge push. The starts to Games 1 and 2 are vital. The Caps need to hang in there and give themselves a look in the third period.
Finally, will the Caps struggle to score on Tim Thomas? Thomas and the Bruins' defense have shut down better offenses in the playoffs. If the Caps are unable to generate much offense on Thomas you could see frustration creep in to their game which will lead to an early exit.
Take Homes: Boston has all the weight of defending the Cup while Washington's expectations have been lowered by their performance in the regular season. Washington will need to be resilient and remain confident as there will be times when Boston dominates in this series.