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Top East contenders duel in season opener

by Brian Hunter

CAPITALS (0-0-0) at BRUINS (0-0-0)

Season series -- First of four meetings for the 2009-10 season; Capitals went 3-0-1 against the Bruins last season, with Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green all scoring two goals apiece. Marc Savard's two goals led Boston. In goal, Jose Theodore posted a 2-0-1 record for the Capitals, while Tim Thomas went 1-1-1 for the Bruins.

Big Story -- A pair of division winners last season, both of whom were unceremoniously knocked out in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, start anew with the goal of ending this season at the top. Boston finished first in the Eastern Conference with 116 points and swept Montreal in the first round, but was eliminated in overtime of Game 7 by Carolina. Washington rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the New York Rangers in round one, only to lose a hard-fought, seven-game series to eventual Cup champ Pittsburgh.

Team Scope:

Capitals -- Forwards Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble figure to be key additions to an offense that is already jet-powered, led by snipers Ovechkin and Semin and playmaker  Backstrom. Theodore won back the starting job he lost to Semyon Varlamov during the postseason, but the rookie will see his share of time this season as well.

"I am sure they are going to be raising some banners on Thursday in Boston and we have to be ready for that," coach Bruce Boudreau said in his weekly column on the team’s Web site. "Those ceremonies always get the home team excited and I can guarantee you that there will be goose bumps for the Bruins when that banner goes up. They are going to come out really hard in the first period, and it is going to be real important for us to be in it right from the beginning."

Bruins -- The bar has been raised for this season after Boston ruled not only the Northeast Division last season but entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the East. Nine of the top 10 scorers are back, and a healthy Patrice Bergeron, who didn’t even crack that group a season ago, is expected to contribute more.

Coach Claude Julien understands the importance of starting strong: "Every year that the teams that are in good shape by Thanksgiving are usually the teams that end up in the playoffs. We are aware of that … and we understand how important it is to get off to a good start, but even more so this year in front of our fans. There's no doubt that these first five games will be crucial in our minds."

Who's Hot -- Knuble, a gritty forward signed from Philadelphia in the offseason, led the Capitals in the preseason by scoring four goals in his last four games. Thomas excelled in his last two preseason starts, making 33 saves and stopping all three shootout attempts in a win over Montreal before coming back the following night with 35 saves to defeat Ottawa.

Injury Report -- Capitals forward Tomas Fleischmann remains out indefinitely with a blood clot in his leg, while forward Eric Fehr is about two weeks away from playing due to a shoulder injury. The Bruins have a few players who are day-to-day, including forwards David Krejci (hip) and Marco Sturm (groin), but both are expected to be in the opening night lineup.

Stat Pack -- The Bruins had the two best plus-minus players last season in Krejci (plus-37) and rookie Blake Wheeler (plus-36), and three of the top six when you include defenseman Dennis Wideman (plus-32). But the Capitals have a guy who has hung a minus rating on many an opponent in Ovechkin, whose 56 goals were tops in the League.

Puck Drop -- This was a potential conference final before the Hurricanes and Penguins intervened, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see these clubs battle it out for a berth in the Final this spring. A no-nonsense start to the regular season.

-- Brian Hunter,

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