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A rough idea of how this series will go

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / April 12, 2012
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This is guaranteed fun. The Bruins and Capitals meet Thursday night at the Garden for Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, and based on the snippets of postseason history between these two teams, bad blood will boil, crazy plays will unfold, and the ghost of Dale Hunter - not past, but present - will be stationed behind the Washington bench as coach.

“[Bleep] Dale Hunter!’’ bellowed then-Bruins coach Mike Milbury, fuming amid the 1990 Cup semifinal series between the clubs, when Hunter, born with a perpetual snicker, was still in residence as the game’s No. 1 mayhem maker and cheap-shot artist. “I wouldn’t have him on my team if he was the last guy on Earth.’’

In that series, Hunter, then 29 years old, all but decapitated slick Boston center Craig Janney with a vicious head-hunting shot in the slot.

“As I recall,’’ said Boston defenseman Bob Beers, thinking back some 22 years to his rookie NHL season, “he also gave Janney another shot or two after he hit the ice.’’

Hunter, for the record, was not the guy who broke Beers’s leg in Game 4 of that series, which the Bruins swept to advance to the Stanley Cup Final against the Oilers. Fourth-line winger Tim Berglund did the honors, catching Beers with an ugly leg check and snapping his leg near the right knee, a steel rod required to make Beers whole again.

No one on the current rosters matches Hunter for, shall we say, rawboned irascibility and evildoing. Even without his presence or his menace, however, it will be a physical series, because that’s just the way it is at this time of year, with 16 wins hanging there as the fruit of a championship. It would be a franchise first for the Capitals and the second in as many seasons for the Bruins.

It got rough between these two in the 1998 playoffs, too, when good pals Byron Dafoe and Olaf Kolzig dropped their goalie gear and pummeled one another silly in a battle royale at the Garden, adding to a pile of 210 penalty minutes that night.

Earlier, with that first-round series knotted, 1-1, the Bruins believed they won Game 3 when P.J. Axelsson fired a shot by Kolzig midway through the first overtime.

But the goal was wiped off the board when replay showed that one of Tim Taylor’s skate blades was in the crease before Axelsson fired. Ex-Bruin Joe Juneau won it for the Capitals in the second overtime, and Washington went on to clinch the series in six games.

Fourteen years later, the Capitals have one of the game’s superstars in Alex Ovechkin, the dynamic winger/point man whose offense fell off dramatically this season amid Hunter’s return as coach.

With Bruce Boudreau as the bench boss, the uber-talented Ovechkin raced around and fired away, making him one of the game’s top three scoring threats. He was often unpredictable, defensively questionable, but typically money in the bank when it came to putting pucks in the net.

Ovie’s game was already sputtering before Hunter supplanted Boudreau, and though he had a fairly strong late kick, he finished the season with a career-low line of 38 goals and 65 points.

Bruins sophomore Tyler Seguin led Boston scoring this season with 29 goals and 67 points, 2 more points than one of the game’s most gifted performers. Which may not portend 50-goal seasons for Seguin, but it certainly certifies that he already has put himself in big-boy conversation.

The key in this series very likely will rest right where it often does in the playoffs: in the respective nets. The Bruins plan to go with Tim Thomas the whole way, as they did last spring (using the veteran stopper in all 1,542 minutes of 25 games).

Thomas, who will turn 38 Sunday, won the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) for that performance, and in recent weeks he has resharpened his game after a tepid two months.

Meanwhile, unless there is an update from the injury ward, the Capitals plan to roll with 22-year-old goaltender Braden Holtby - he of 21 games of NHL experience, not a minute of it in postseason.

Rookie goalies are not necessarily destined to fail in the playoffs. The Canadiens rode high and hard with such newbies as Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy, even Steve Penney (not quite the mettle of the two Hall of Famers).

But the postseason game is vastly different from the Game 1-through-82 version, and it’s a guarantee the Bruins will make shots on net a top priority, along with heavy traffic in and around the crease.

A hectored Holtby could have the Capitals in a 2-0 hole before the series reaches D.C. Monday night. Not likely they would then take four out of five against the defending Cup champs.

Boston coach Claude Julien noted Monday, when asked about line-by-line matchups, that Hunter doesn’t care about conventional wisdom. He and Hunter were once employees of the same Nordiques organization, and Julien, who is conventional and disciplined in his approach to all facets of the game, knows his counterpart is far more likely to be guided by emotion, guile, feel - just as he was as a player.

All the while, Hunter knows he has charge of a group that perennially failed in the playoffs under Boudreau because it couldn’t master the heavy, disciplined, defensive game that it takes to win at this time of year.

Game 1 is here. Faceoff, 7:30 p.m. The Bruins should win the series, in no more than six games, based on their superior goaltending and the thick skin that covers their hide after 25 playoff games last year.

But keep in mind, if there is an X factor, it isn’t so much Ovechkin, or maybe even the baby-faced Holtby, but rather the devilish mayhem wired in the head of the dastardly Hunter.

He was a man born to toss rocks through picture windows. The NHL showcase window is just his kind of event.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.

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