For all the Boston Bruins' surprising success before the All-Star break, one thing the East's top team couldn't do was beat the conference's second-best club.
But after losing twice in the nation's capital in the first half, the banged-up Bruins return to action Tuesday by hosting the Washington Capitals, who will try to correct their season-long struggles on the road and chip away at Boston's conference lead.
The Bruins looked like a team on the upswing after ending a two-year playoff drought last season and pushing top-seeded Montreal to a seventh game in the first round, but even starting goalie Tim Thomas didn't figure they'd be tied with San Jose for the NHL points lead at the All-Star break.
"When you're in camp you don't know exactly what you got," Thomas said after Boston's 4-3 shootout win at Toronto last Wednesday to close the first half. "I could have believed it after the first 10 games but any time before that, if I was a betting man, I would have bet against it."
Coach Claude Julien's club has often dominated at both ends of the ice, leading the East with 3.51 goals per game behind an emerging corps of young forwards. Led by Thomas, the Bruins (34-8-5) are tops in the league with a 2.15 team goals-against average.
But in the series with one of the NHL's other emerging young teams, they've managed just two total goals in a pair of losses at Washington (30-15-3).
Behind NHL goals leader Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals sit in second place in the East thanks to a 19-3-1 home record. They earned a 2-1 win over Boston on Jan. 17 in a game that was played in what Washington coach Bruce Boudreau called a "playoff-type atmosphere."
"We did a pretty good job against that pretty potent offense," Julien said. "They've got some guys that can really score some goals, but it was offensively that we didn't create much. They bottled us up pretty good there in the neutral zone, and I think we can get a little better in that area."
The Capitals, meanwhile, are striving for improvement on the road. After going into the break with a 3-2 loss at last-place Ottawa last Tuesday, they have an 11-12-2 road record this season - the NHL's biggest discrepancy between a home and road marks.
With Alexander Semin in the penalty box, Washington allowed the game-winner with just 1:22 remaining in regulation against the Senators.
"When you're on the road you play for the tie and then you win it in overtime," Boudreau said. "... That's what winning is all about and you've got to learn how to win. Right now, there are some guys that know how to play, they just don't know how to win."
The Bruins have proved they have that knowledge, going 24-2-1 from Nov. 1 through Jan. 1. But slowed by a bevy of injuries to key players, they're just 5-3-1 since.
They could get healthier rapidly after five days off, with defenseman Andrew Ference and forwards Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron all close to returning. Phil Kessel, the team's leader with 24 goals, is also working his way back from mononucleosis.
"Obviously they're all doing much better, and I think there's a lot of possibilities for (Tuesday)," Julien said.
Thomas figures to remain in net for Boston, which called up Tuukka Rask from Providence of the AHL, with Manny Fernandez likely to miss a few days with what Julien called "general soreness."
After teaming up to lead the East to victory in Sunday's All-Star game, Thomas and Ovechkin will now face off. Ovechkin scored the clinching shootout goal in the 12-11 win, while Thomas was the winning goalie for the second straight season.
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