ARLINGTON Va. -- Washington Capitals forward Keith Aucoin was a high school sophomore when he realized a dream that was shared by most hockey players growing up in the Boston area.
With Boston Garden only months from closing, Aucoin and his teammates from Chelmsford High School took celebratory laps around the legendary rink as the 1995 Division I Massachusetts state champions.
"That place was pretty cool," said Aucoin, a native of Waltham, Mass. "I was watching a lot of games there when I was younger and it was a lot different experience going there than it is to the [TD] Garden now, but both are fun places to play."
Seventeen years after that memorable night at Boston Garden, Aucoin is set to experience another lifelong dream when he makes his NHL Stanley Cup Playoff debut Thursday when the Capitals face the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC). It just happens to be at TD Garden against the team he grew up watching.
"It's exciting," Aucoin said of facing the Bruins. "Obviously a lot of family and friends. … I've been getting a lot of calls and text messages. I told everyone to get their own tickets -- they're too expensive. But it's awesome. Obviously growing up a Bruins fan and growing up the goal is to win the Stanley Cup and now [to have] the chance to beat them to get to that goal -- it's going to be a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to getting it going."
It's hard to blame Aucoin if he's chomping at the bit to get Game 1 started. The 33-year-old entered the 2011-12 season having played 75 NHL games spread over six seasons and two organizations. However, he's played 88 games alone in the American Hockey League playoffs.
"It's my first time," Aucoin said of the NHL playoffs. "My last chance was with the [Carolina] Hurricanes [in 2008]. We lost the last game of the year [against Florida] and then Washington beat Florida the next night to make the playoffs and knock us out. So it's my first experience and I'm really looking forward to it. Obviously it makes it a little more special playing Boston."
At 5-foot-8 and 171 pounds, Aucoin went undrafted after four years at Norwich University and began his professional career in 2001 with the now-defunct Broome County Icemen of the United Hockey League.
Since then, Aucoin has spent the better part of the last decade developing into one of the AHL’s all-time greats. He's No. 15th all-time in scoring in AHL history with 777 points in 673 games, a two-time Calder Cup winner with the Hershey Bears and a six-time postseason all-star.
But success in the NHL has been hard to come by for Aucoin, who now has 11 goals and 37 points in 102 NHL games with the Hurricanes and Capitals.
Finding the appropriate role for the offensive-minded Aucoin in the NHL has been a challenge. While he has seen time late this season playing alongside Alex Ovechkin and on the Caps' No.1 power-play unit, Aucoin is expected to begin the playoffs on the fourth line, with Mathieu Perreault and Joel Ward. It's a role Aucoin is ready to embrace.
"I think whenever you play in the playoffs, the game gets a little quicker and it's a lot more physical, but other than that, it's the same type of game," Aucoin said. "You just have to go out there and play your systems and play the way you're capable of playing. Obviously it gets a little more physical, but at the same time I like the physical play, so I'm going to go out there and be a little more physical myself."