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April 09. 2012 9:09PM

Ian Clark's On Hockey: Monarchs, Bruins brace for challenges


Washington rookie goalie Braden Holtby defends during Saturday's game against the Rangers. The Capitals will call upon Holtby to come up big when they visit Boston Thursday in the opener of their first-round playoff series. (REUTERS)

ONE local team is looking to defend its title while the other is looking to defend its hold on a playoff spot.

The second-seeded Boston Bruins open the Stanley Cup playoffs Thursday night when they host No. 7 Washington. Meanwhile, the Manchester Monarchs have just four regular-season games remaining and carry a tenuous hold onto the eighth and final playoff spot into a game at Worcester tonight (7 p.m.).

Manchester (36-31-5, 77 points) has one more game remaining than the two teams above them in the standings (Syracuse and Connecticut) and the three below them (Portland, Adirondack and Providence), so the Monarchs are in control.

Manchester faces a Sharks team that is still mathematically (though not realistically) alive in the playoff race at 29-31-12 (70 points). Worcester needs a win to stay alive, but also knows that a win will hurt their division rivals as well.

“We've had fairly good success against them,” Monarchs head coach Mark Morris said. “It's up to us to put forth our best effort in order to have success (again).”

Manchester follows the game at Worcester with a trip to Connecticut Friday night and closes the regular season slate with 3 p.m. home matinees against two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference Saturday (Hershey) and Sunday (St. John's).

The Monarchs could mathematically (though again, unlikely) move up to sixth place in the conference if Connecticut (36-25-12, 84) lost its remaining games and Manchester won all of four of its games.

Moving into seventh place would be a tough task, but is more feasible. Syracuse (36-28-10, 80) has only three games to play. But the Crunch have been one of the hottest teams going with a 7-1-2 mark over the past 10 games.

The bottom line for Manchester is that if it wins its remaining games, no one can knock the Monarchs from the eight spot. Locking up No. 8 would match Manchester up with the top-ranked Norfolk Admirals, winners of a record 25 consecutive games.

But that's a problem for next week if everything goes according to plan for the Monarchs this week.

As for the Bruins, the matchup with Washington shapes up to be a tough one.

The Capitals put on a strong charge down the stretch to fight off Buffalo and not only get into the playoffs, but move up to seventh place with a win over the No. 1. seed New York Rangers on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Bruins quietly put their own strong finish together to lock up the two seed and enter the postseason feeling good about pretty much every aspect of their game.

Taking a look at how the teams stack up, the Bruins have a decided edge at the last line of defense. Tim Thomas closed the season with strong efforts and even got in a little bit of rest. He took the team on his shoulders in last year's Stanley Cup run and the Bruins will need him to be the main man once again.

In the other cage is Caps rookie Braden Holtby, who has been thrust into the spotlight due to injuries to Washington's regular netminder Tomas Vokoun and backup Michal Neuvirth.

Holtby went 4-2-1 in the NHL after being called up from Hershey and his inexperience on the big stage will have all eyes on him in this series. It's not unheard of for a rookie goalie to come out of nowhere and carry a team (Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward, Antti Niemi), but Holtby will have a tough first-round test to cut his teeth on.

Defensively, the edge also belongs to Boston in a big way. The Bruins have big, physical D-men with some scoring (Zdeno Chara and his 12 goals and 40 assists). Boston will be challenged by the dynamic scoring duo of Alex Ovechkin (38-27-65) and Alexander Semin (21-33-54).

But the Caps are not nearly as deep as Boston. As long as Ovechkin and Semin (and the just-returned Nicklas Backstrom) are kept from taking control of games, Washington just doesn't have enough other gunners to win over the long haul.

Bruins coach Claude Julien wasn't willing to bite when asked about that after Monday's practice, however.

“I really feel that there's a lot more than Ovechkin on that team and let's not get caught up in looking at one player,” Julien said. “Backstrom is back, Semin can score, they've got some decent players. So there's a lot of strength on that hockey club and I feel that that team is playing really well right now, so we're going to be playing against a team that has a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs.”

While the Alexes up front will be hard to keep completely quiet, the Bruins being able to roll four offensive lines against a mediocre Capitals defensive corps, which includes ex-Bruin Dennis Wideman, should keep Boston on top thanks to superior depth.

The Capitals won three out of the four regular-season meetings, but those numbers rarely mean anything the playoffs unless the overall matchup itself is lopsided, which this one is not.

Despite Boston's advantages, this series has the earmarks of a long one, at least six games and probably even seven. Like most of the first round matchups this year, it should also be a memorable one thanks to a matchup between two teams that are fun to watch.

Ian Clark covers pro hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is iclark@unionleader.com.


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