Boston Bruins right wing Nathan Horton (18) celebrates with center David Krejci (46), of the Czech Republic, defenseman Andrew Ference (21) and defenseman Joe Corvo (14) after scoring against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday Jan. 17, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O\'Meara)
BOSTON - The Boston Bruins still have Tim Thomas, and they've added something they think might be even more important as they try to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
"It's called experience," coach Claude Julien said of the lessons he learned in the Bruins' title run last year. "Once you've got that experience, it makes you a better coach, and the experience I gained last year, I certainly hope to be able to utilize to my advantage this year."
The Bruins won their first NHL championship since 1972 last year, thanks largely to the Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy-winning Thomas and some young forwards who emerged during the post-season. Like their coach, those players have another year of experience and the confidence of knowing they can win it all.
"I feel good about our team," Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said on 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."
The defending Stanley Cup champions earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They will begin their title defence against the Washington Capitals on Thursday night at the TD Garden, with Game 2 on Saturday. The series moves to Washington for Games 3 and 4 on April 16 and 19. Game 5 would be back in Boston on April 21, if necessary.
"Going into the playoffs you know what's at stake, and I mean every game is going to be a battle," forward Patrice Bergeron said. "We have the experience from that last year and we just need to ... worry about ourselves and just make sure we are ready for a tough series."
Last year, Boston escaped Montreal in a seven-game series in the first round, and after sweeping Philadelphia they beat Tampa Bay in another seventh game to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. The Bruins beat the Canucks in Game 7 in Vancouver.
"Playing a couple of Game 7s, and Stanley Cup final Game 7, that's going to go a long way," second-year forward Tyler Seguin said. "So, let's hope the experience with all the little things, the details of the game, the defensive zone and I'm going to do well."
They had a short summer to celebrate, but then it was back to the ice where they learned quickly that the big shiny trophy comes with a price: There was no sneaking past anyone this season, and the playoffs will be more of the same.
"That only makes things harder on us," forward Brad Marchand said after the season finale against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday. "Teams are going to be that much more driven to beat us, and it just shows that we're going to have to work even harder if we want to win again."
Chiarelli went into the season concerned about a Stanley Cup hangover, and the team tried to build in a defence against complacency and exhaustion. Winning the division and earning the No. 2 seed in the East was a sign that they handled the challenges well.
"We got through the season and I'm satisfied," he said. "I'm satisfied that we got through it and we are where we are now."
No team has won back-to-back NHL championship since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98.
Chiarelli said the Bruins' experience should help them avoid panic if they fall behind in the playoffs. Last year, they lost their first two playoff games at home to the Canadiens, lost the opener against Tampa Bay and the first two against Vancouver in the Cup final.
"The confidence you get from having won will be important," Chiarelli said. "You can never underestimate the value of the experience. I've seen that grow with 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 challenge."
Chiarelli said forward Nathan Horton is a "long shot" to return from a concussion before the playoffs are over, noting that even though he has been cleared to skate it will take him several weeks to get back into shape. Backup goalie Tuukka Rask may be ready to return sooner, but he is unlikely to play in the post-season unless Thomas is injured.
Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid are day to day.