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Rink Roundtable: Bring on the Bruins

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The Rink crew chats about the upcoming series w/ the Bruins

Boston Bruins v Washington Capitals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

It’s that time of year again... the postseason is set to get underway tomorrow night when the delightful Capitals take on the big, bad Bruins. So how do they stack up? What surprises are in store? And ultimately who will take the series? We weigh in on all of that below!

Q1: What do you think is the biggest advantage the Caps have over the Bruins in their upcoming series?

J.P.: The Caps’ typical “biggest advantage” is their power play, but that’s more or less sawed off by a Bruins PK that is both terrific (they have the League’s second best efficiency at 86 percent) and dangerous (a League-leading nine shorthanded goals). I do think the Caps have a sizable advantage in the bottom-six forward (and wrote about it a bit here), but I’m going to go with having home-ice advantage. The Caps were 17-8-3 at home this year and Boston was 18-7-3. Sure, the Caps’ 19-7-2 mark away from home was the best in the League, so it’s not like they can’t win on the road. But having the last line change and your preferred match-ups in this series is going to be important, so getting that edge in the first two games and potentially four of seven is big. Plus, even at 25 percent capacity, Capital One Arena will be rockin’.

The Peerless: Unflappability. Sure, the Caps are a veteran team, the Bruins are a veteran team. The Caps have depth, the Bruins have depth. The Caps can play big, the Bruins can play big. But the Caps had the best record in the league in one-goal games (19-1-5/.760 winning percentage). Boston was tied for 20th (12-8-7/.444). The Caps have found ways to eke out wins or hang on for them after things got more interesting in some games than they should have been.

RP: Coaching. Peter Laviolette has taken multiple teams to a SCF and you don’t win that many series without being great at adjusting head to head. Bruce Cassidy is obviously a capable coach but I think when you compare track records Lavi has been great since he joined the league and Cassidy… hasn’t.

Greg: I’m going to take what J.P. said and flip it just a bit: I think the Caps biggest edge is in their defensive depth. Although I’m not thrilled with Justin Schultz’s play lately, Brendan Dillon and Trevor van Riemsdyk has been surprisingly stellar together, and Zdeno Chara and Nick Jensen have excelled as a third pair. Boston, on the other hand, features Mike Reilly and Brandon Carlo on the second pair, with Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton on the third pair. That’s...fine, but it’s not exactly special. Boston is going to need to ride Charlie McAvoy a lot this series, which might matter later on.

Luke: I think the Capitals depth is going to be their strong suit. The Bruins have their Perfection Line, and thanks to no one offering anything better, with the addition of Taylor Hall they have a pretty good second line as well. But their bottom six is pretty mediocre (DeBrusk-Kuraly-Coyle, Ritchie-Lazar-Wagner) - it isn’t bad, but it isn’t close to what the Capitals are bringing. Of that group, Ritchie is the only player with more than 10 goals. The Capitals on the other hand will have at least three players that have scored at least 10 goals, depending how they form their bottom six. The Caps’ defensive core isn’t that much better than the Bruins but still deeper as the Capitals will have Zdeno Chara, Nick Jensen, and/or Trevor van Riemsdyk on their bottom pairing, while Bruins will have Jeremy Lauzon and Kevan Miller.

Kevin: I’m going with scoring depth here. We all know what the likes of Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie can do, but the Caps support players have showed up in a big way this year. Daniel Sprong has scored 5v5 goals at a higher rate than any other player in the league not named Auston Matthews. Nic Dowd dropped 11 goals, and 9 of those came at even strength. That beats out David Krejci’s five 5v5 goals and Craig Smith’s eight 5v5 goals - both on Boston’s second line. Oh, and don’t forget about Connor Sheary, who narrowly scored 5v5 goals at a higher clip this year than Patrice Bergeron.

Alex: Their “Next Man Up” energy. The Capitals have faced a lot of adversity this season in terms of important players coming in and out of the lineup due to things like injury or COVID protocol reasons, but the team took those setbacks and turned them around into wins. They have rolled with the punches and kept chugging along no matter how many guys were unavailable, which is an excellent attitude to take into any playoff series. I think a lot of this goes back to what Peerless was saying about the team’s unflappability — to paraphrase Chumbawamba, they get knocked down but they get up again.

Becca: I’m going to agree with Rob (!) and say that coaching may be their biggest advantage, especially in a series where the Caps are seen as an underdog. The best way to counteract your disadvantages is to have a smart coach running things who knows how to do so - and the Caps have that in Laviolette. I’m really excited to see what he can bring out of this Caps team, because he’s already done such a great job with what was a pretty tough hand to be dealt in his first year.

Q2: What is the Bruins’ biggest advantage over the Caps?

J.P.: This one’s easy - goaltending. The Caps have to be hoping for League-average netminding from Vitek Vanecek (and maybe others), while the Bruins probably fear getting that from Tuukka Rask (and have impressive rookie Jeremy Swayman waiting in the wings should that happen). Anything’s possible come playoff time, including Vanecek turning into Jaroslav Halak circa 2010. But you’d be unwise to bet on the Caps outplaying the B’s in net.

The Peerless: Defense. If you subscribe to the notion that “defense wins championships,” Boston has it in abundance. Third-best scoring defense (2.39 goals against per game), second-best penalty kill (86.0 percent), best net penalty kill (91.0 percent), fifth-fewest shot attempts allowed at 5-on-5. J.P. is right about the goaltending advantage the Bruins will enjoy in this series, but that ability to stymie opponents extends outward from the crease.

RP: Goaltending. If the Caps even come close in the Goaltending duel it will be a huge victory. Unfortunately I don’t see how that happens. Henrik Lundqvist isn’t walking through that door.

Greg: J.P. and Rob are right, Boston’s biggest edge is goaltending. Rask is having a fine season, and Jeremy Swayman has been surprisingly stellar. On the other hand, the Caps options are rookie Vitek Vanecek (who has saved 7.3 goals below expected) and Illya Samsonov, who might have just gotten COVID again and has saved 5.6 goals below expected. Yikes.

Luke: Everyone is saying goaltending so I won’t go that route. I’ll say health. I talked about Capitals having better depth above but depth doesn’t work if you’re team is missing players. Seems like Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, TJ Oshie, and John Carlson are limping into the playoffs in some form. On top of that Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov are still on the Covid list. If Caps want to use their depth advantage they must get and stay healthy.

Kevin: It’s goaltending. Whoever gets the net for the Caps doesn’t need to be as good as Rask in order for the Caps to win the series, but he needs to be significantly improved from the regular season version of himself.

Alex: Sorry to sound like a broken record, but it’s goaltending and it’s not even close. Tuukka Rask is a proven postseason goalie, and whoever gets the starting nod for the Caps isn’t. That uncertainty is part of the problem, too. The Capitals’ defense is going to need to come up big in this series to give any Washington goaltender a chance.

Becca: I guess I’ll join the mob and say goaltending as well, but the Bruins’ ability to explode offensively and their top-six forwards - especially with that new guy they added at the deadline, what’s his name? Tyler? - are both scary good. Although having said that, the Caps’ top-six, when everyone’s healthy and engaged and not being stupid about COVID, can be pretty lethal too. So... yeah, it probably goes back to goaltending.

Q3: Which Cap do you think could be a surprise standout in this series?

J.P.: Not to dwell on goaltending, but if Vanecek was legitimately good in the series, that would be a surprise to me. But I’ll go elsewhere to answer the question and pick Anthony Mantha. We’ve seen how he can score goals in bunches, and depending on who’s healthy and playing on which line in the top-six, Mantha could end up with some favorable match-ups. And, heck, he already has as many goals in this year’s playoffs as the guy he was traded for had in the last two postseasons...

The Peerless: I’ve got to go with Mantha as well. In fact, I’d go as far as to say if he is not a standout – surprise or otherwise – the hill the Caps have to climb gets a lot steeper. The problem is his streakiness. Goals in each of his first four games with the Caps (including one against Boston), none in ten games since. He seems to be less assertive in the offensive end in those later games, and that could be a problem since the Bruins are not giving anyone a free pass into dangerous scoring areas. He must take more command of his game and fight harder for scoring chances. The Caps’ chances might hinge on his ability to do that.

RP: The only way this goes in favor of the Caps is if Kuznetsov plays like he did in 2018. Some players show their best effort when they’re playing guilty, and if anyone has a reason to feel guilty right now it’s that guy. Guess we’ll see how much capacity for shame he has, and how much that motivates him, but if he’s not aces the series will be short.

Greg: To me, the Caps success is going to hinge on Lars Eller. Eller and fellow linemate Conor Sheary are likely to see a lot of Boston’s perfection line, and they are going to have to be incredibly stout defensively for the Caps to have a chance. Luckily, Eller has been pretty strong this year when healthy, so maybe the Caps have a chance in those matchups. Maybe.

Luke: Everyone is taking all the good answers! So I’ll go with Daniel Sprong. The dude is a goal scoring freak. Was second-best this year in 5v5 goals per 60 and rank 10th in the same stat over the last three years combined. A big part of playoff success is depth scoring. No team has ever won a Cup with just their top six doing all the heavy lifting. You need timely goals from your bottom six, and there are few players better than Sprong at doing just that. It’s his first time in the playoffs as well so he should be pretty motivated to put pucks in the back of the net.

Kevin: How about Big Z, Zdeno Chara? You know the Hall-of-Famer is gonna have a chip on his shoulder after the Bruins let him know that he wasn’t a part of their plans for 2021, and his getting his former team as his first playoff opponent could be kismet. In addition to being motivated, Chara is intimately familiar with the tendencies of all the Bruins’ top players, not to mention the systems of Bruce Cassidy. Chara has also played with a lot of physical restraint this year, but I expect him to take the governors off a bit for a tough playoff series. Chara’s impact will be on the ice, but also in the ear of his teammates and coaches, and given that expectations for him aren’t particularly high, I like him as a surprise candidate.

Alex: I guess when you procrastinate the Roundtable, everyone else takes all of the good answers... I agree with every above take, but I’ll throw a new name out there to shake it up: Conor Sheary. For the Caps this season, Sheary ranked fourth in goals (14), second in even-strength goals (13), and tenth in points (22), all while averaging just 13:43 of ice-time per game. People keep talking about depth scoring for the Caps being a pretty vital part of their game this series, and Conor Sheary could be the guy to pull a lot of that weight.

Becca: I’m going with an answer sure to piss off all of Beantown: Tom Wilson. If he can find a way to play physical but smart hockey - and despite popular opinion he is absolutely capable of doing so - his size and skill is a great matchup for the Bruins. He has the ability to play big and open up space for his linemates but he’s also got good hands and decent speed to create offense of his own. And his ability to get under everyone’s skin rivals that of Marchand (with 100% less need to lick his opponents to do so) - if he keeps his head and serves as the pest, not the target of one, he could be the ultimate villain in a legal way.

Q4: And of course, hit us with your predictions - one “bold” prediction and one prediction for how the series will wind up.

J.P.: My bold prediction is that if the Caps can win one series in these playoffs, they’ll win four. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ll be able to win that one, as I’ve got the Bruins taking this one in five, maybe six games.

The Peerless: Bold? Neither Tom Wilson nor Brad Marchand will do something profoundly stupid. How will the series end up? Capitals in seven, maybe in overtime with someone batting in a rebound of a shot a teammate took on a breakaway.

RP: Bold prediction is the Caps will use three different goalies. I don’t think they’ll make it that long though, B’s in five.

Greg: Sorry y’all, I just don’t see it for the Caps this series. Boston in 5. For a bold prediction: I’ll say that Craig Anderson sees some action (bad) and reminds us why he was fourth on the Caps depth chart going into the year (even worse).

Luke: If Caps can stay healthy I think they have the ability to slow down the Perfection Line, and after that their superior depth should take over. Caps in 6, but if they can’t stay healthy then Boston in 5. Bold prediction is Vitek Vanecek stays above .920sv% on the series.

Kevin: Bruins in 6.

Alex: Bold prediction? Vitek Vanecek records one shutout. I’m with Luke, Caps in 6 if they can stay healthy. If not, Boston in 6.

Becca: My bold prediction is that at least three of these games will go to overtime (although perhaps it’s not so bold to predict overtimes in a matchup between the 2 and 3 seed in the postseason, but whatever). As for how the series will wind up? My head tells me Boston in 6, my heart wants to go with Caps in 7. Which one I go with depends on the day, what I had for breakfast, which direction the wind is blowing,,,