NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Bruins vs. Capitals series preview

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You hear that? It’s the sound of the TD Garden’s ice keepers putting “2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs” on the ice. Nothing beats playoff hockey, folks, and thankfully, it’s right around the corner.

The Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals will go head-to-head in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Game One will be held at Capital One Arena in Washington D.C. on Saturday night. This matchup prompts an inter-staff rivalry between Assistant Sports Editor Brendan Beauregard and Sports Editor Christopher Williams. Beauregard and Williams broke down where their teams stand heading into the first round. 

Boston Bruins – Brendan Beauregard

State of the team:

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Boston comes rolling into the playoffs with a 12-4-1 record since the trade deadline—good for third place in the MassMutual East Division. 

The Bruins won their regular season series between the Capitals with a 4-2-2 record, according to ESPN. Besides the anomaly that was Washington pumping the Bruins 8-1 back on April 11, Boston has more than held its own against an experienced and physical Capitals team.

With new additions and a predominantly healthy lineup, this Bruins team has a better chance of going the distance compared to the one that started this season—and one new Bruin could play a huge role in the playoff.

X Factor: Taylor Hall

The one-time Hart Trophy winner has revitalized not only himself but Boston’s scoring depth. After being acquired from the lowly Buffalo Sabres back on April 11, Hall has recorded 14 points in 16 games as a Bruin—compared to his 19 points in 37 games for Buffalo this season, per Hockey-Reference.

Hall plays a different role for Boston than he has in previous playoff trips. With the New Jersey Devils and Arizona Coyotes, Hall was the top guy. But for the Bruins, Hall is arguably the sixth most important player on the squad. That not only makes Hall’s life easier, but also bolsters Boston’s depth.

Watch out for Hall and the rest of Boston’s second line in center David Krejci and winger Craig Smith this series. Since Hall’s arrival, that line has produced 13 goals and an impressive Corsi rating of 66-percent, a statistic that measures shot attempt differential between a team and its opponent, per Natural Stat Trick. If I’m Washington, there’s more than just the Bruins’ “Perfection Line” of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak to worry about.

One weakness: Scoring depth at even strength

One of, if not the biggest, problem for the Bruins is the team’s even-strength scoring. Sure, that weakness has decreased a bit since the trade deadline, but consider the stats of some Bruins depth players.

Third line center Charlie Coyle only scored six goals in 51 regular season games, per Hockey-Reference. Former second line winger Jake DeBrusk has had such an underwhelming season of just 5 goals in 41 games he now skates on the Bruins fourth line. 

Boston is an arguably top-heavy team, but it’s going to need its bottom two lines to pick up the slack if its top two lines fail to score.

One advantage over Washington: Goaltending

Thank the Hockey Gods that Washington no longer has famed Bruins killer Braden Holtby between the pipes. While Washington has held its own with the young tandem of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, whoever the Capitals roll with will experience their first taste of the playoffs.

On the flip side, Boston brings strong goaltending. Veteran starting netminder Tuukka Rask is 7-2 with a goals against average of two and a .923 save percentage since returning from injury back on April 15, per ESPN. Rask is no stranger to the playoffs with 93 playoff games under his belt, according to Hockey-Reference.

If Rask were to have a shaky series start, the Bruins could easily turn to promising rookie goalie Jeremy Swayman. Swayman went 7-3 with a sturdy 1.5 goals against average and .945 save percentage this season, per Hockey-Reference.  

Prediction: Bruins in six

Considering the questions around Washington’s health and goaltending, it would be more suitable for Boston to close out this series quickly. But Washington will still make a series out of it, even if I believe Boston will advance in the end.

Washington Capitals – Christopher Williams

State of the team:

The Capitals, who finished second in the East with a 36-15-5 record, enter Saturday’s game banged up and bruised with multiple key players carrying injuries. 

Captain and winger Alex Ovechkin missed seven of Washington’s last nine games of the regular season due to an undisclosed lower-body injury, but returned for the Caps’ final regular season game against the Bruins. Center Nicklas Backstrom, winger T.J. Oshie, and defenseman John Carslon were also listed with lower-body injuries in the last week, but they are set to appear tonight. 

The Capitals are without forward Evgeny Kuznetsov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who are out due to COVID-19 protocols.

One X Factor: T.J. Oshie

The Capitals are a different team when Oshie plays. While players like Ovechkin and Backstrom are typically in the spotlight, Oshie is the unsung hero of the Capitals. 

He’s an offensive threat and a defensive presence. His ability to score at even strength and on the power play, defend on the penalty kill, throw his body around, provide Washington with energy, and play in any position on the top three lines is unparalleled—and he does all of this while recording impressive numbers.

Oshie was the team’s second-best scorer with 24 goals, only two less than goal-scoring machine Ovechkin, and he produced the third-highest point total on the team with 43. He also led the team with 13 power-play goals.

Whether at even strength, on power play, or on the penalty kill, Boston will need to keep an eye out for No. 77 in red all series.

One weakness: Goaltending

Goaltending has been the biggest question for Washington this season. Samsonov entered the season as the starter but was quickly sidelined a few weeks in after testing positive for COVID-19, which gave the starting position to the rookie Vanecek. The Czech Republic native put up impressive numbers this season for a first-year NHL starter, and his 21-10-4 record proves it.

However, both Vanecek and Samsonov lack playoff experience. Samsonov was set to back up former Capital Braden Holtby as a rookie netminder last postseason, but an injury sidelined him for the playoffs. He’s also sidelined tonight due to COVID, which means Vanecek is set to make his NHL postseason debut between the pipes.

The Capitals managed to win a playoff series in seven games against the Bruins in 2012 with then-rookie goaltender Braden Holtby. Will Vanecek be able to do the same? He certainly is confident he’ll be able to.

“I want to go there and do my best and then save every puck and help the team win every single game,” Vanecek said in an interview with NBC Sports Washington.

One advantage over Boston: Power play scoring

Washington has typically boasted one of the strongest power plays in the league during the Ovechkin and Backstrom era, and that has been the case once again this season. The Capitals scored 24.8 percent of the time while on the man advantage this season, which made the team the top-ranked power play in the East and the third-best in the NHL, according to SB Nation

Oshie has led the way for the Caps this season with a team-best 13 power-play goals and a joint second-best 17 power-play points alongside Ovechkin. His ability to get shots off quickly in between the circles has been crucial for Washington, and I can see him netting a few power play goals this season if the Bruins can’t stay out of the penalty box.

Ovechkin’s famed scoring dominance from the left circle, dubbed “his office,” while on the power play was on display nine times in the shortened season, and his partner-in-crime, Nicklas Backstrom, led the team with 22 power-play points. If those three players can stay healthy and continue recording similar numbers, the Bruins will be in trouble throughout the series. 

Prediction: Bruins in six 

I agree with Brendan’s prediction. The Capitals have a history of entering the playoffs with high expectations as one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the league and being bounced in the first round by their “underdog” opponent. I’ve had my heart broken by the Capitals too many times in the playoffs, and I see it being no different this year, especially given the team’s injury and goaltending questions.

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