The Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals have previously met in the playoffs three times, but in 2021, the two Eastern Division foes will reacquaint with each other after a season like no other.
Boston defeated Washington on four different occasions during the 2020-2021 condensed season, and the Capitals returned the favor with four wins of their own against the B’s. To add to the constant parody in the NHL, especially with playoff matchups, just three points separated the two teams in the standings.
It’s a classic battle between old versus new in the crease: veteran goaltender Tuukka Rask for the Bruins against the young duo of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov for the Capitals. In the case of Washington’s goaltending situation, however, things aren’t as simple as they may seem.
Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette has yet to reveal who his starting goalie will be for Game 1 on Saturday, and as the time passes in preparation for the series, it appears more and more likely that it’s going to be a game-time decision. Samsonov, 23, was expected to be the clear-cut successor to Brayden Holtby after his departure to Vancouver. After an early-season battle on the COVID-list and more recently being scratched for disciplinary reasons, Samsonov only managed to appear in 19 games all season long. His backup, Vanecek, has been reliable for the Capitals all season, posting a .908 save percentage.
No matter how confident the Capitals’ brass may be in their goaltending options, the advantage in the crease goes to Boston. In fact, it may single-handedly determine the outcome of the series. Rask has been here before. He has experience as the franchise goalie. Just two years separate the Bruins’ trip to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals led by Rask himself
It’s hard to ignore the glaring storyline on the blue line that needs to be addressed. Former Bruins captain Zdeno Chara will be playing his first playoff series in a Capitals uniform against his long-time club. After the Bruins opted to go with a youth movement on the backend during the offseason, Chara departed for Washington just weeks before the start of the campaign. No matter how effective the defenseman is in this series is irrelevant because his presence alone is what matters to the storyline.
Boston’s Charlie McAvoy versus Washington’s John Carlson is bound to be one of the great battles on the blue line in the playoffs. The two American defensemen see the most ice time out of anyone on their respective teams and are both capable of playing close to 30 minutes a night. Chara’s departure from Boston allowed McAvoy to take over the reins on the back end. He has thrived ever since, scoring 30 points in 51 games while serving as a key piece on the Boston power play.
Much of the same can be said about Carlson in Washington, and unlike McAvoy, the Capitals’ power play quarterback has been seasoned in playing big-time minutes in the playoffs for almost 10 years.
Washington’s power play has been stellar for almost a decade and a half now, avoiding penalties and, in turn, succeeding during the Alex Ovechkin era. On the contrary, however, Boston’s penalty kill under Bruce Cassidy was ranked second in the league this season (86 percent).
Both the Capitals and Bruins thrive on special teams, and it’s been a key part of what has separated them from the non-playoff teams in their division, particularly the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. With Boston’s ability to not only kill penalties but attack when shorthanded, combined with Washington’s knack to apply furious pressure with Carlson on the back end, the special teams element to this first-round series becomes a point of intrigue.
Despite the offensive slumps that any team endures over the course of a full season, both the Bruins and Capitals are capable of scoring at a high rate at any time.
The Bruins’ first line, also known as the “perfection line,” consists of three forwards who not only showcase their elite chemistry with each other on a nightly basis but also provide the option for Cassidy to play them in any situation. It’s truly a matchup nightmare for the opposition. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrňák have all excelled in regular-season play and in the postseason as a trio.
Washington’s ability to minimize the damage of the opposition’s first line cannot be ignored, as evident with its play this season against its divisional foes. The trade deadline acquisition of Anthony Mantha from Detroit has given the Capitals a new look in their top-six group, and one that has paid dividends thus far. Expecting Mantha to play on the top line regularly with Nicklas Bäckström and Ovechkin throughout the series is not a stretch, and choosing him as an offensive X-factor wouldn’t be foolish, either.
Killer Edge/Game Breakers
When the Buffalo Sabres were shopping Taylor Hall ahead of the trade deadline, there was no doubt that potential buyers had themselves one question to ask: which version of Hall are we getting?
It appears as though the Bruins have their answer, and that’s good news as they enter the playoffs. Hall recorded 14 points in 16 games as a member of the B’s, a drastic improvement from what his output was with the Sabres in the early goings of the season. The former first overall pick in 2010 essentially acts as the top secondary scoring option in the series.
Cassidy has emerged as one of the mainstay coaches in the league as a result of his team’s production over the last five years. The Bruins’ penalty kill and power play have thrived under his leadership, and their ability to dictate the pace of play over the last two playoff runs has given them a significant advantage in recent times.
For the Capitals’ Laviolette, coaching a team playing in fast-paced playoff series is nothing new. If Washington’s general approach to the series is to prevent anyone else but the “perfection line” from beating you, then Washington could find success early on.
Having two marquee East Coast teams playing in an NHL playoff series means big ratings and instant attention. But it’s more than that this time around. Both clubs have played each other tightly in five-on-five play all year long, and the fourth-ever playoff series between the two foes should showcase nothing but the same.
Barring a meltdown in the crease from Rask, Boston’s experience in the net and a potential game-breaker in Hall can lead to the B’s pulling off the “upset.”
Series Prediction: Boston 4, Capitals 3
Follow Logan Lockhart on Twitter @lgllockhart
Main Image Credit: