NHL East Division First Round Playoff Preview: Boston Bruins versus the Washington Capitals.
Washington tied for first place in the East Division with Pittsburgh but settled for the second seed given tie-breakers. The Capitals had 77 points in the regular season, coming from a 36-15-5 record under first-year head coach Peter Laviolette. Led by Alex Ovechkin and a core group of veterans who led the franchise to their first Stanley Cup championship in 2018, the hope is the pieces are in place to make another deep postseason run.
This team started great under head coach Todd Rierden last season in his second year with the organization. However, their play waned in the second half, and they were a disappointment in the bubble after the COVID stoppage in play. A first-round playoff exit to the New York Islanders compelled the franchise to dismiss Rierden and hire the former Nashville skipper. Known as a disciplinarian who might coax better efforts from underperforming veterans like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Laviolette is the first Washington head coach with previous NHL coaching experience in the Ovechkin era.
Laviolette had one of the deepest blue lines in the league during his time with the Predators, which peaked with a Stanley Cup appearance in 2017. General manager fortified the Capitals' depth on defense by signing Zdeno Chara and Justin Schultz in the offseason. Led by John Carlson, who might be coming off his best regular season in his career with ten goals and 34 assists in 55 games, Washington has three capable blue line pairings.
Ovechkin and Kuznetsov have had better seasons despite shooting percentages that top 12%. Ovechkin has 24 goals and 18 assists in 45 games after tying for the league-lead with 45 goals last season. Kuznetsov scored only nine times with 21 assists in 41 games. Niklas Backstrom led the team with 53 points coming from 15 goals and 38 assists. T.J. Oshie complemented that line with 22 goals and 21 assists.
Goaltending remains a question mark after the franchise parted ways with Braden Holtby in the offseason. Second-year pro Ilya Samsonov was 13-4-1 in 19 games, with a 2.69 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. Rookie Vitek Vanecek was a surprise by playing in 37 games while posting a 21-10-4 record with a 2.69 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. MacLellan had originally signed veteran New Rangers’ goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in the fall to mentor these young goaltenders while perhaps offering Laviolette his playoff experience in the postseason. Turning to Lundqvist is not an option after he opted out from playing the season the health issues with his heart.
The Ovechkin/Kuznetsov duo may not have as lethal in the regular season as they were in the 2016-17 campaign, but this Capitals’ team may have better depth at forward and center. MacLellan traded for Detroit Red Wings’ talented but underachieving center Anthony Mantha at the trade deadline. Mantha is anchoring the Backstrom-Oshie line. The Caps join Carolina as the only two teams in the NHL to rank in the top-five in power-play productivity and the power play kill unit.
Boston finished in third place in the East Division with a 33-16-7 record. They were four points behind the Capitals and Penguins. The Bruins ran away with the President’s Trophy last year, but they lost their mojo after the stoppage of play in March. They lost all three of their round-robin games in the bubble to determine playoff seeding before losing to Tampa Bay in the second round. Did this team simply get outplayed by a Lightning team that was due to win a Stanley Cup title, or was their disappointment in the restart a harbinger whose championship window is closing?
Head coach Bruce Cassidey still has probably the best forward line in hockey in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. Fourth-year defenseman Charlie McAvoy has emerged into one of the elite blue line players in the league. Goaltender Tuukka Rask continues to play at a high level. The former Vezina Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion for this franchise has a 15-5-2 record in 24 games, with a 2.28 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. The Bruins have one of the best “backup” goalies in the NHL in Jaroslav Halak, who posted a 9-6-4 mark in 19 games, with a 2.53 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage.
Boston started the season sluggishly, with Marchand and Pastrnak recovering from off-season surgeries. The team is peaking at the right time with 14 victories in their last 19 games entering the postseason. General manager Don Sweeney made one of the biggest splashes in the league by acquiring Taylor Hall from Buffalo at the trade deadline. The talented left wing was lost with the Sabres but immediately responded playing in a new uniform by scoring seven goals and adding seven assists in his 16 games as a Bruin. He joins center David Krejci and right win Craig Smith, the team’s biggest free-agent signing in the offseason from Nashville, to form an imposing second line. Sweeney also added blue line depth by trading for defenseman Mike Reilly from Ottawa.
Krejci has 36 assists and 48 points in 51 games in leading the second line. Marchand leads the team with 69 points coming from 29 goals and 40 assists in the 53 games he played. Bergeron has 23 goals and 25 assists in 54 games. Pastrnak added 20 goals and 28 assists in 48 games.
These two teams split their eight regular-season meetings, with Boston outscoring Washington, 26-25.
The opening game of this series begins the NHL postseason on Saturday on NBC at 7:15 PM ET. BetAnySports lists the Bruins as a -125 money line road favorite with the total set at 5.5.
Prediction: Boston Bruins win the series in 6 games