After their 3-2 overtime victory over the New York Islanders on Monday, the Boston Bruins have secured the third seed in the highly competitive MassMutual East Division. It has been a hectic season, full COVID-19 outbreaks, countless injuries, losing streaks, plus some blockbuster deals at the trade deadline. The Bruins have weathered the storm and earned the chance to play in the toughest postseason in sports.
They will face the second-seed Washington Capitals in the first round, which begins in Washington D.C. on Saturday. The Capitals will have home-ice advantage in the seven-game series. While this is a small advantage for the Caps, other factors will play a bigger role in deciding who wins.
The Bruins must accept that this will be a tough one, no matter how many Capitals are injured. In the playoffs there are no easy wins. Next, they must focus on three things: neutralizing the Caps’ lethal power play, winning the battle along the boards, and trusting in their goaltender, Tuukka Rask.
Don’t Count on Injuries to Bail You Out
As the Bruins have finally grown healthy in the final weeks of the regular season, the Caps have gone in the opposite direction. Many of their key pieces are dealing with lower-body injuries. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and John Carlson have been on the injured list for a week. T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson also went down with lower-body injuries in their OT win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday.
That’s not all: Evgeny Kuznetsov and goalie Ilya Samsonov have been placed on the COVID-19 protocol list. If they tested positive, they will be out for at least two weeks. This is a string of awfully bad luck for the 2018 Stanley Cup Champions, just one week before the postseason kicks off.
However, most of these injuries do not appear to be long-term. Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Carlson are listed as day-to-day. Wilson suffered a knee-on-knee hit and was able to return to the game, so he will likely be ready as well. Oshie’s status remains day-to-day as well, despite that his injury seemed more serious when his ankle got twisted under him during an awkward fall along the boards.
Yes, Washington will be banged up, but this should not change how the Bruins play. The Caps will still play hard-nosed, physical hockey, with or without their star players.
Shut Down the Power Play
The Capitals boast the top power play in the East Division and the third-best in the league with a 25.85% success rate. With Oshie stalking the crease, Carlson roaming the blue line, and Ovechkin still scoring from his signature spot on the left-wing, Washington’s first power-play unit is a scary sight to behold. All three players should be ready for Game 1, so again, Boston cannot count on the injuries to bail them out.
Thankfully, the Bruins have the second-best penalty kill in the NHL, led by some great defensive forwards. We already know about Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand’s strong two-way play, but plenty of other forwards have contributed to Boston’s penalty-killing success: Sean Kuraly, Charlie Coyle, and Chris Wagner, to name a few.
Additionally, Boston’s blue line is getting healthy at the right time. Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk – who dealt with injures this season – are a lethal duo at both ends of the ice. Brandon Carlo is key to the penalty kill when healthy. Kevan Miller, Jeremy Lauzon, and Connor Clifton have done their part as well. Lauzon has been Boston’s best penalty-killing defenseman this season, believe it or not.
Of course, the simple solution to neutralizing the Caps’ power play is to avoid penalties. Boston commits an awful lot of them, which they will need to improve on if they want to make a deep playoff run. But even if they continue giving up penalties, the Bruins are capable of shutting down the Capitals’ power play and are aware of how important it will be in deciding this series.
Unfortunate events have recently transpired between the Capitals and New York Rangers and as a result, Washington has cemented themselves as one of the most physical teams in the league (“physical” is putting it lightly).Tom Wilson is not the only culprit. Garnet Hathaway and Brenden Dillon, among others, have done their share of the dirty work. But make no mistake: the Bruins have plenty of size and physicality as well.
Nick Ritchie is guaranteed to be in the lineup each game, barring an injury. We can also assume that Wagner will take up his spot in the bottom-six, and Miller will be locked into the third defensive pairing. Whether Miller’s partner is Jarred Tinordi, Lauzon, or Clifton, they are all active along the boards. Surprisingly, Clifton leads the team in hits this season. Carlo and Trent Frederic should also get involved.
Those who were on the Bruins’ roster in 2019 know why they lost to the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Final. Boston had the skill advantage at every position, but the Blues were more physical. They won more loose puck battles. They won the battle on the boards. The Bruins will have to win these battles against Washington to move on to the second round.
Rask Silences the Doubters
Despite that Rask is still considered one of the best goaltenders in the league when healthy, he has received serious hate from Bruins fans in the last 12 months. Almost every article has an angry Bruins fan in the comments calling Rask one insult or another. They say he’s a flake, he’s selfish, he doesn’t care about hockey, and he doesn’t have what it takes to win the “big game”.
First of all, to suggest that a professional athlete doesn’t care about hockey is ridiculous. Some players are more committed than others, no doubt, but goalies are a different breed. They’re cerebral and obsessive, almost on the verge of insanity. They put their bodies on the line every time they step on the ice.
If he really was as “flakey” as they say, he would have retired last year. Rask is all-in this season. His resiliency in overcoming a nagging back injury is a testament to that. He is still posting numbers among the best in the NHL: 2.28 goals-against average (GAA), a .913 save percentage (SV%), and a 15-5-2 record. Additionally, his playoff numbers are better than we give him credit for: 2.20 GAA, .926 SV%, and seven shutouts in 93 games. His reputation as a choker is vastly overstated.
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It will take a 2011 Tim Thomas-like performance for these doubters to be silenced, but all the stars are aligning for Rask to do so. Expectations are lower than they were in 2019. The Bruins are red-hot. Rask is healthy, well-rested, and he knows this could be his last real shot at the Cup. He can start by shutting down a formidable offensive opponent in the Capitals.
Playoffs Are a Different Game
The Bruins came out on top in the regular season series, but the postseason is a different game – faster, more physical, with a heightened sense of urgency. This series will come down to which team wants it more, as it often does in the NHL Playoffs.
If Boston wants to survive and advance, they need to make this a meat-and-potatoes series. Limit penalties (and if they do commit a penalty, hold strong on the penalty kill), be the more physical team, and trust in their star goalie to get the job done. But most importantly, they cannot allow Washington’s long list of injuries to change their outlook on the series. They cannot look ahead to the next round. They must win one game at a time, one shift at a time.
I cover the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Fan of all things New England sports.