Capitals vs. Bruins playoff preview

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No. 2 Washington Capitals vs. No. 3 Boston Bruins

Capitals: 36-15-5, 77 points

Bruins: 33-16-7, 73 points

Season series: WSH 4-4-0; BOS 4-2-2

Game 1:  Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS)

The Capitals and Bruins will play each other in a postseason series for the first time since 2012. 

Each team has been a fixture in the playoffs over the past decade, with the Capitals making the postseason in each of the past seven seasons and in 13 of the past 14, including winning the Stanley Cup in 2018. The Bruins have made the postseason in each of the past five seasons and in 12 of the past 14, winning the Stanley Cup in 2011 and reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2013 and 2019. 

But this time Zdeno Chara, who captained the Bruins through each of those runs to the Final, is on the other side after signing with the Capitals as an unrestricted free agent on Dec. 30. 

“Obviously playing ‘Zee’, I’m sure that’ll be a storyline,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. 

Chara had been the longest-tenured captain in the NHL, serving in the role in each of his 14 seasons in Boston. In his 1,023 games with the Bruins, the 44-year-old scored 481 points (148 goals, 333 assists). He scored 10 points (two goals, eight assists) this season with Washington. 

The Bruins are heartened by the fact that they played well of late against the Capitals in the MassMutual East Division this season. Entering 2020-21, the Bruins had lost 17 of 19 regular-season games (2-12-5) against the Capitals, dating to Oct. 11, 2014. This season they are 4-2-2 against Washington. 

“Solid team. Great top six. Big bodies,” Cassidy said. “Their coach has been there many times. So they’re going to be ready to go. … But a team we’ve played well against this year. Looking forward to the matchup.”

Though the Capitals have struggled with injuries while the season has wound down, coach Peter Laviolette likes the direction his team is heading in his first season. Washington finished 11-4-1, even as it withstood injuries to forwards Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, defenseman John Carlson, goalie Ilya Samsonov, and the absence of forward Evgeny Kuznetsov because of COVID-19 protocols.

“The game that we’ve been playing on the ice, based on everything that you see when you watch the game and then the data that comes out after the game — you’re looking at scoring chances, you’re looking at zone time and you’re looking at special teams — there’s a lot of things that we really like about the last 20 to 25 games that we’ve played,” Laviolette said. 

“They haven’t always been wins, but the game, I think, gives you the opportunity to win. So I think we’re comfortable and confident with that and hopefully the health will go along with it.”

 

Game breakers

Capitals:  Nicklas Backstrom led the Capitals with 53 points (15 goals, 38 assists), the first time he’s done so since 2016-17. And though he’s not usually the one finishing off the plays, Backstrom is often the one setting them up, his brilliant passing creating so many of the chances the Capitals have scored on over his 1,011 NHL games. Backstrom leads Washington with nine points (one goal, eight assists) against Boston this season. 

Video: WSH@NYR: Backstrom chips shot past Shesterkin

Bruins: It’s not clear how he’s doing it, but Brad Marchand is getting better with age. The left wing, who turned 33 on Tuesday, averaged 1.30 points per game this season, the highest of his NHL career. He also averaged an NHL career-high .55 goals per game, and he’s playing more in control than he ever has before.

Video: NYI@BOS: Marchand buries the dish from Krejci

 

Goaltending 

Capitals: The Capitals might not have expected Vitek Vanecek to get the bulk of their starts this season, but the rookie has held his own in net. Vanecek started 36 games, going 21-10-4 with a 2.69 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. The Capitals also have rookie Ilya Samsonov, who started 18 games, going 13-4-1 with a 2.69 GAA and .902 save percentage. The third option for the Capitals is veteran Craig Anderson (2-1-0, 2.13 GAA, .915 save percentage). 

Bruins: Tuukka Rask hasn’t had the smoothest of seasons, but he is ending it right where he wants to be: healthy and on a roll heading into the playoffs. Rask is 7-1-0 in his past nine starts, with a 2.00 goals-against average and .923 save percentage and. Cassidy said on Tuesday that he will use rookie Jeremy Swayman (7-3-0, 1.50 GAA, .945), who has arrived in the NHL ahead of schedule, to back up Rask. Cassidy also has veteran Jaroslav Halak (9-6-4, 2.53 GAA, .905) who missed three weeks in April because of a positive test for COVID-19 and saw Swayman pass him on the depth chart. 

 

Numbers to know

Capitals: The Capitals have scored nine goals in 30 power-play opportunities against the Bruins this season (30.0 percent). That’s higher than their 24.8 percent for the season, which ranked third in the NHL behind the Edmonton Oilers (27.4) and Carolina Hurricanes (25.6). 

Bruins: Marchand scored 14 goals in April, the most by a member of the Bruins in a single month since Barry Pederson scored 15 in December 1982. In the 23 games since the start of April, Marchand has scored 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists).  

 

X factors

Capitals: The Capitals added a key piece before the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline, acquiring Anthony Mantha from the Detroit Red Wings on April 12. Mantha scored a goal in each of his first five games, including one against Boston. Mantha has never played in the playoffs in his six seasons in the NHL, but he could play a meaningful role in his first chance.

Video: WSH@BOS: Mantha fires wrist shot through for PPG

Bruins: Taylor Hall has been a different player in Boston since his April 12 trade from the Buffalo Sabres. He scored 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 16 games with the Bruins after scoring 19 points (two goals, 17 assists) in 37 games with the Sabres. Hall is a player with the talent to win the Hart Trophy, which he did in 2018 with the New Jersey Devils; he’s playing like that guy again. 

Video: NYI@BOS: Hall beats Sorokin for OT winner

 

They said it

“Going into the playoffs, you’ve got to make sure you have that good feeling in your body and you’re excited about these upcoming games. That’s where this group is right now. We’re excited about this, and only positive vibes.” — Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom

“It’s been 16 games. It’s probably been some of the most enjoyable hockey I’ve played in my career. I really hope there’s more to come.” – Bruins forward Taylor Hall

 

Will win if …

Capitals: They stay healthy. The Capitals have run into injury issues of late, with Ovechkin (lower body), Oshie (lower body), Carlson (lower body) and Backstrom (lower body) all missing time in the past week. Add to that the fact that Kuznetsov remains on the COVID-19 protocol list and the Capitals aren’t heading into the playoffs at full strength. But they can get back there quickly. 

Bruins: Their defensemen hold up. The Bruins took a gamble in the offseason, allowing Chara and Torey Krug (St. Louis Blues) to sign elsewhere as unrestricted free agents and deciding to go with some youth. It has been rocky at times, but the defense (and goaltending) have held opponents to 2.39 goals against per game this season, fourth-lowest in the NHL. And trading for defenseman Mike Reilly from the Senators on April 11 has strengthened the group, though Boston is still relying on Kevan Miller and his surgically repaired knee. 

 

How they look 

Capitals projected lineup

Alex Ovechkin — Nicklas Backstrom — Anthony Mantha

Conor ShearyLars EllerMichael Raffl

Daniel Sprong — Philippe Maillet — Tom Wilson

Carl HagelinNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Dmitry OrlovJustin Schultz

Brenden DillonTrevor van Riemsdyk

Nick Jensen — Zdeno Chara

Vitek Vanecek

Craig Anderson

Scratched: None

Injured: T.J. Oshie (lower body), John Carlson (lower body)

COVID-19 protocol: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Bruins projected lineup 

Brad Marchand — Patrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Taylor Hall — David KrejciCraig Smith

Nick RitchieSean KuralyCharlie Coyle

Jake DeBruskCurtis LazarChris Wagner

Matt GrzelcykCharlie McAvoy

Mike Reilly – Brandon Carlo

Jeremy Lauzon – Kevan Miller

Tuukka Rask

Jeremy Swayman

Scratched: Anton Blidh, Trent Frederic, Ondrej Kase, Karson Kuhlman, Connor Clifton, John Moore, Jarred Tinordi, Jakub Zboril, Jaroslav Halak

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