BOSTON -- Entering the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs as the defending champions, the Boston Bruins definitely are more confident and experienced.
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli even alluded to the notion Sunday that the 2012 edition of his club might even be more talented. However, he's not about to guarantee a repeat of last June's Stanley Cup celebration with the Bruins' postseason set to start in four days.
"I feel good about our team," Chiarelli said during a 20-minute conference call Sunday. "I think we have more skill because I think our skill has matured from last year. It's so tight. I mean, you've got to get some luck along the way. But I think we've got as good a chance as any to come out of the East. And we're facing a pretty formidable foe to start. We haven't matched up well against Washington. And we kind of caught them when we were in a bit of a downswing each time, it seems. So it's going to be a good test to start."
The Bruins, who enter the postseason as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, lost three of their four games with the Capitals during the regular season. That they couldn't prevail in a season series against a team that finished as the No. 7 seed was indicative of their roller-coaster season.
Boston crawled to a 3-7-0 start to the season, and then reeled off 10 straight wins. That historic run began a 21-2-1 hot stretch that lifted the Bruins to among the elite of the NHL. However, starting Dec. 31, the Bruins struggled through a 16-18-2 stretch that ended with their first four-game losing streak in two years, March 10-15.
Finally, Boston rolled to the Northeast Division title and the second seed by closing out the regular season on a 9-2-1 run.
In describing the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of his team's season, Chiarelli emphasized the similarity of the 2011-12 campaign to other seasons -- noting that most seasons are up-and-down. He takes solace in the fact that the season ended with an upturn.
"I was very happy to see our last maybe eight or nine games where I felt the group, the players and the coaches, I thought they really beared down and paid attention to detail and were able to focus on getting the momentum," he said. "And I feel that we've captured that and I see, right through the lineup, I see guys clicking. So I'm happy with where we are now. All seasons are up-and-down unless you have some record-breaking season. I'm satisfied that we got through it and we are where we are now."
The Bruins relatively are healthy heading into the playoffs. Chiarelli classified forward Nathan Horton, who hasn't played since late January because of a concussion, a "long shot" to return. But Boston's ailing blueliners -- Johnny Boychuk (knee) and Adam McQuaid (upper body) -- are listed as day-to-day and could be available by Thursday for Game 1 at TD Garden (7:30 p.m., NBCSN, CBC). Backup goaltender Tuukka Rask, who has been out since injuring his groin in early March, is progressing and could be available during the first-round series, as well.
Chiarelli pointed to the Bruins' ability to shut down Washington's skill players, led by Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, as the key to his team's success. He also wants his players to get plenty of shots on net, especially if the Capitals start rookie goaltender Braden Holtby because of injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth.
Most of all, Chiarelli wants his players to stick to the game plan that helped them succeed last year and this season.
"With our team it's about playing to the man, playing hard in straight lines, getting pucks deep, getting behind the [defense] and creating plays both off the rush and off the forecheck," Chiarelli said. "I know that sounds very simple, but that's what our strength is. Oftentimes, it's playing to your strength rather than responding to what you perceive the other team's strength to be. And I think that's the case here, too."
And if reflecting on last year's success and squeezing it for every possible lesson will provide an edge for the Bruins, Chiarelli wants his team to use its championship pedigree, as well.
"The experience that we gained from winning [helps]. I've talked about it before, the ability to avoid panic is an attribute that I think has carried over also and I've seen it come out in the last seven or eight games," said Chiarelli. "So all these things, plus the confidence you get from having won, will be important. You can never underestimate the value of experience. I've seen that grow in our group. ... We've gained a lot from winning the Cup.
"Having said all that, it's real tough to repeat. So it's going to be a real challenge."