Thornton/By S. Bradley

The last two springs, upsets have deprived us of a Bruins-Washington Capitals playoff series.

If the hockey gods are smiling on fans in the Hub and D.C., as well as across North America, we’ll finally get that match-up in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs.

After the third meeting of the year between the two beasts of the East– a 5-3 Washington victory tonight — it’s pretty obvious these two clubs are the class of the conference. Even better, their contrasting styles make for dramatic contests, with Boston’s suffocating team defense and timely scoring trying to overshadow the Caps’ high-octane offense and bend-but-don’t-break defense.

Playing a better defensive game than usual for two periods and forechecking with fury, the Capitals built their 3-0 lead tonight. Then in the third period, Boston awoke and took advantage of some of undisciplined and lazy play by Washington to even things out. It wasn’t exactly how the Caps drew it up, but they exacting some revenge on the Bruins.

After all, Boston had dominated the first two meetings of the year between the two clubs — by a combined score of 7-2 — and kept Alexander Ovechkin off the score sheet. However, those two games lacked a key ingredient for Washington: Mike Green. A Norris Trophy finalist the last two years, Green is the engine that makes the Caps’ transition game go. He showed that tonight with a goal and an assist to go with his obviously improved play in his own end taking the body and clogging the Bruins’ passing lanes. To add to the effort, Ovechkin popped in a goal and added an assist.

As has been their habit the last couple years, the Bruins probably psyched themselves out before starting this contest, as they knew they had handled the Caps easily last month and rode a three-game winning streak overall into the Verizon Center. That’s part of the reason why they reverted to the form of a team that couldn’t get out of its own end nor win any of the key battles for the puck for 40 minutes. Heck, the Bruins gave up a 3-on-1 shorthanded goal. That’s almost mathematically impossible, let alone something you wouldn’t even see in a high school game.

If there have been two constants through the Bruins’ first 10 games, it has been the stellar play of Tim Thomas in goal and the all-out effort of the grinding line of Gregory Campbell, Brad Marchand and Shawn Thornton. Thomas was spared the third period by head coach Claude Julien after his listless teammates hung him out to dry tonight. But Boston’s banging line led the way in the three-goal comeback, including Thornton’s second goal of the season that tied the game. He also drew the penalty that led to Boston’s second goal.

Of course, when the fourth line is the best line, that tells you something about the Boston’s team-wide effort.

The Bruins and Caps, by virtue of being non-divisional foes, now meet just one more time this regular season, Dec. 18 in Boston. That night, the Garden will be rocking, the Bruins will show that they learned their lesson from their loss in D.C. and the defensive stalwarts from the Hub and offensive juggernaut from the nation’s capital will collide in another the league’s most intriguing showdowns.

Unfortunately, the NHL season will play out over the course of the final four months without another Bruins-Caps game. If we’re lucky, some time in May we’ll get to see a best-of-seven rematch.