With the regular season drawing to a close faster than a Zdeno Chara slapshot, now is as good a time as any to take a look at the possibilities for the Boston Bruins in the first round of the NHL playoffs. There are three teams that the Black and Gold could end up facing in the first round of this year's playoffs as they prepare to defend their Stanley Cup Championship. I don't include the Sabres on this list, as it would take a near perfect coincidence of variables for Buffalo to claw its way up to the sixth or seventh seed.
New Jersey Devils (96 Points) Record Against: 4-0-0
Strengths: Arguably the most defensively responsible team in the Eastern Conference, each and every line - with the exception of the top unit - is better than solid in the defensive zone, while still possessing the ability to contribute on the offensive end. The Devils are also a team built with hoards of veterans, who have been to the rodeo a time or two. Aided by the league's top penalty kill unit, aging netminders Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg have posted a respectable 2.54 goals against average this season.
Weaknesses: Outside of the top line of Ilya Kovalchuk, Adam Henrique and Zach Parise - which is without doubt one of the NHL's most lethal forward trios - the Devils struggle to find consistent secondary scoring. While the return of Travis Zajac will likely go a long way to helping solve that problem, New Jersey is fairly heavily reliant on production from the star-studded Kovalchuk line.
Conclusion: While unlikely that these two squads will make acquaintances in round one, I'm fairly confident that I'd give the Bruins the nod if and when they meet the Devils in the playoffs.
Ottawa Senators (92 Points) Record Against: 4-1-0, 1 Left To Play
Strengths: Armed with the Northeast division's most lethal power-play unit (18.3%) and a 3.00 goals per game average, the Sens are one of the more offensively prolific teams headed for the post-season. Anchored on the back-end by hands-down Norris Trophy favorite Erik Karlsson (19G/58A) and former-Bruin Sergei Gonchar (4G/31A), the Senators also possess the league's best tandem of puck-moving defenseman. Lead by superstar pivot Jason Spezza, Ottawa's front line consists of youthful and extremely dynamic forward corps.
Weaknesses: Outside of veteran captain Daniel Alfredsson and a few others, the better part of the Sens' roster hasn't experienced the intensity of playoff hockey. Also, the Sens aren't known to be a physical team. With the exception of enforcer Chris Neil, Ottawa does not employ many physically imposing skaters, something that could put them at a severe disadvantage against a bruising bunch like the Bruins.
Conclusion: Without doubt, this would be the matchup I'm sure most Bruins' fans would like to see the most. The B's have fared well against Ottawa this season and could likely easily wear down the Sens over the course of a seven game series.
Washington Capitals (88 Points) Record Against: 1-2-1
Strengths: With the return of puck-handling whiz Nicklas Backstrom and his subsequent reunion with uber-star Alexander Ovechkin, the Caps once again find themselves in possession of one of the most dynamic top lines in all of hockey. The Caps unquestioned ability to score has been complimented this season by the additions of gritty forwards Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern and Troy Brouwer.
Weaknesses: After three consecutive early playoff exits - despite holding one of the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference - the Caps' ability to "win the big one" has still yet to be answered. Whether it's due to a character issue in the Washington room , as many in the mainstream media like to call it, or a variety of outside factors, the Capitals will be tethered to that identity until they're able to escape round two.
Conclusion: Boston hasn't exactly matched up well with the Caps this season and a first round matchup with Ovechkin and the gang wouldn't work in the favor of the defending Cup champs. Despite all of their playoff struggles, this Washington group can still be extremely dangerous simply because of their immense offensive talent.