The Washington Capitals are set to open the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday at Capital One Arena against the Boston Bruins, in their first postseason game in Chinatown, since their Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2019 that ended their reign as defending champions with a first-round exit.
Now, how close are this year’s Caps to being able to being able to make a strong playoff run this spring?
Certainly, Washington’s lineup now is better than last year’s in the Toronto bubble, particularly in the defensive corps, as what was a major vulnerability in August is now a strength for the club. The one large question mark for Washington is now in net, with the apparent starter by default in Vitek Vanecek having a blank playoff resume, while the status of their other netminder, Ilya Samsonov, is uncertain.
And, with this year’s temporary realignment, the playoff road begins against one of the tougher draws in the league in the Bruins, which will require Washington to be strong off the bat despite some recent issues around the club.
Defense Much Improved Over Bubble Team
Following last year’s five-game loss to the Islanders, Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan made a concerted effort to fix the team’s thin blue line over the off-season, adding Justin Schultz from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Zdeno Chara from the Bruins, and Trevor van Riemsdyk from the Carolina Hurricanes.
The result was a much more efficient defense this season, with the team averaging less than three goals allowed and under 30 shots per game his season, a solid improvement over last season – even with the loss of veteran goaltender Braden Holtby.
The defense cleaned up a lot of the 10-bell saves that Holtby had to deal with last season and giving their two young netminders a much better chance at making saves and being successful.
Offensively, the Capitals were essentially even with last year’s squad in per-game production, dropping slightly thanks to some late-season injuries and issues that at times had Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov out of the lineup. (from ‘Status of Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie among questions as Caps prepare for Bruins in playoffs,’ Washington Post, 05/10/2021)
If healthy, Washington presents their opponents with a deep lineup that can get production from any of the four lines and the ability to play an offensive type of game if required.
The Capitals’ biggest question will be the ability – and availability – of their goaltenders.
Vanecek, who picked up the torch when Samsonov first went on the COVID list in January, now will likely take the starting nod due to Samsonov’s latest trip to the list.
Vanecek had a very good rookie season, with a 2.70 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage, and played in seven of eight of Washington’s meetings with Boston this year, recording a 2.86 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage in those contests.
Samsonov remains in COVID protocols and is technically on the team’s taxi squad, with veteran Craig Anderson backing up the team’s last few regular-season games. While he could become a factor should the Capitals need him on an extended run, it seems the Russian has missed another chance to permanently grab the team’s starting role after missing last year’s playoff due to an off-ice injury during the pause.
Vanecek has shown some fatigue at times this season, some vulnerability with a tendency to drop down early and didn’t start in any back-to-back nights this season, and starting against a veteran team like the Bruins with some sharpshooters will pose a big challenge for the rookie.
Injuries, Intangibles Loom Large
Health-wise, the Capitals limped into the playoffs with numerous injuries to their forward corps, and it likely cost them a shot to win the East’s top seed, as they fell on a tiebreaker with the Penguins.
Ovechkin missed all but two of the team’s last nine games with a lower-body injury and certainly missing, or even an impaired 2018 Conn Smythe winner would damage a potential playoff run.
Following the regular-season finale against a piecemeal Bruins lineup, Ovechkin told reporters, “right now, I’m 100%, I didn’t feel any soreness. I feel comfortable. That’s the most important thing. This time of year, you have to be smart and you have to think about the future, not only regular season.”
Oshie was hurt in a collision in Washington’s second-to-last game of the regular season and also would be a big loss for the Caps, as his absence after a Game 4 injury was a major factor in Washington’s first-round loss to Carolina in 2019.
Kuznetsov has been on the COVID list for over a week, the second time he landed on the list this year, and his return is uncertain. Kuznetsov showed his skills during the Capitals’ 2018 run but has been wildly inconsistent since and will need him to work for production whenever he returns to the lineup.
A couple of days off will help the Capitals before their opener, but clearly, they will need a reasonably healthy forward corps to make a run.
They also will need defenseman John Carlson to be healthy, but the moves MacLellan made in the offseason will help at least keep the defensive corps solid, although minus the offensive punch the Norris finalist can deliver.
Bruins Pose Big Challenge
There won’t be an easy transition into the playoffs for Washington either, as thanks to the temporary realignment, they get a playoff-tested Bruins team that is two years off a Stanley Cup Final appearance and last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner.
While the Bruins’ offense lived and died by the production of its top line early this season, the mid-season trade for Taylor Hall gave more depth to their attack and will provide a challenge for the defense and Vanecek, who already had David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron to test goaltenders.
Defensively, Boston misses Chara’s leadership, but the team that transitioned to a more mobile, skilled defense are returning to health after being ground down by injuries at times this season. In the net, Tuukka Rask is certainly capable of taking the Bruins far, and young heir apparent Jeremy Swayman certainly seems capable if pressed into service.
While the Capitals enjoyed a lot of success against the Bruins in previous seasons, this year’s matchups featured some wild affairs and blowouts, and certainly a physical, draining series could be on tap with no love lost between the two – particularly after the Tom Wilson hit on Brandon Carlo in early March which earned the Capitals forward a seven-game suspension and a lot of scorn in Massachusetts. Like the Caps, Boston will look to be physical, and both teams have to make sure the winner doesn’t take home a pyrrhic victory that leaves them wounded for the Penguins-New York Islanders winner.
Cloudy Forecast for Capitals
This Capitals team is certainly capable of making another strong run at the Stanley Cup this spring, even with the window for this group appearing to be closing. However, the goaltending will need to be there, and the team will have to ramp up its game quickly against probably the most battle-tested team in the East in recent years.
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The playoffs are unforgiving and can throw adversity at a team fast, and while this Capitals lineup is a good one, this could be either an extended stay or quick exit for Washington, depending on how quickly they get out of the gate.
For a team that followed up with an unforgettable playoff run in 2018 with two disappointing first-round losses, Washington hopes new coach Peter Laviolette can help take a pretty deep Capitals roster – when healthy – back to an extended run. But they also appear they will need to overcome some injuries and internal issues to do so, and it will be difficult with a very tough first-round opponent.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.