Capitals Finally Break Through Against Bruins

The Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins were supposed to keep things as expected in their season series. Fans who love offense would probably avoid the game and the ugliness would just be caught scrolling through NHL scores the next morning. The Capitals’ 8-1 victory in Boston Sunday night may have changed everything for both squads, or it could have been a simple anomaly.

Capitals Down Boston, but Bruins Are Far From Out

Sunday’s game was a mixture of great offensive prowess and embarrassing defensive play. T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller, and Conor Sheary scored within about a two-minute span in the first period, and each would later add their second goals of the game. The Capitals took a 6-0 lead into the third period before Boston’s Craig Smith ruined Vitek Vanecek’s shot at his second shutout of the season. Vanecek still finished with 34 saves. Fifteen Capitals had at least one point, and all 12 forwards contributed to the 8-1 dismantling of the Bruins.

The dominant performance by the Capitals, however, shouldn’t be seen as a turning point of the season quite yet. This was their highest single-game goal total of the 2020-21 season, but scoring has never been an issue. They’ve eclipsed five or more goals in a game now 11 times this season, including 21 in a small four-game stretch in mid-March. Washington is second in the league with 3.43 goals per game, only trailing the Colorado Avalanche at 3.56. Yet, going into Sunday’s contest, they had only been able to muster up 2.40 against the Bruins, their second-worst average versus any opponent on the year.

Capitals Versus Bruins

Washington and Boston have faced off six times this season. Each team has won three games, and the Capitals have outscored the Bruins 20-19 in the process. However, that includes the eight goals from Sunday. Boston had been handling Washington’s offense in the first five games of the season series.

One issue has been when the stars are on the ice. Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Oshie, and Alex Ovechkin have a combined plus/minus rating of minus-18 against the Bruins. Of course, the four have accumulated 21 points, but that just shows how poorly the defense has played while they’re on the ice. In fact, only six Capitals have a plus rating versus the Bruins, and none of them skate on the top line. If it wasn’t for Sunday’s stat-stuffer, only Jakub Vrana — who is now a member of the Detroit Red Wings after Monday’s trade — would have a green rating against Boston this year.

So, what changed?

Boston’s Defense

The most noticeable difference in Sunday’s matchup was the defensive line pairings of the Bruins. Jarred Tinordi and Jack Ahcan were inserted into the lineup and struggled together. Tinordi, with 18 appearances on the season, played against the Capitals twice earlier in the season and was solid. However, Ahcan, in just his second showing of 2020-21, posted a minus-3 rating in Sunday’s loss. The pairing of Kevan Miller and Matt Grzelcyk, who just days ago helped hold the Capitals to two goals on 33 shots, did not skate. However, the two largest absences were Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy, both of whom have upper-body injuries that have sidelined them this month.

Tuukka Rask Charlie McAvoy
Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask and Charlie McAvoy celebrate (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Another upper body-stemmed deficiency for the Bruins is that of Tuukka Rask. The netminder has been on injured reserve since March 25, and Boston has fought to stay average during his absence. During the 11 games since his injury, the team is 5-4-2 and let in 3.45 goals per game. Rask is 8-4-2 with a goals-against average of 2.40 this season, which is tied for 11th among qualifying goaltenders. Sunday, in his fifth appearance this year, Daniel Vladar let in all eight Capitals’ goals, which dropped his save percentage to .758. Rask’s is .907.

Rask is actually 0-2 against the Capitals this year, and both Vladar and Jeremy Swayman have made the 34-year-old veteran’s future in Boston uncertain. Though his goals-against average is slightly higher, Jaroslav Halak has fared better, winning both his starts with Washington. It’s all about matchups.

Capitals Shouldn’t Get a Big Head

Don’t put too much stock in Sunday’s result. Washington fans may be quick to get excited about the team’s fantastic game, but it may have been more about taking advantage of an opportunity and getting good work in. With a healthy Carlo and McAvoy, and Rask or Halak in net, Sunday would have been completely different. It still was a big win, especially since the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins were both victorious as well, and the top of the MassMutual East Division remains tight.

Daniel Sprong Washington Capitals
Daniel Sprong, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

When given these opportunities, there are definitely some positive aspects to appreciate. Sheary and Daniel Sprong continue to contribute, the power play was able to function at a high level, capitalizing on three extra-man chances, and Lars Eller is definitely getting his skating back into full form from injury. With some major movement at the trade deadline, the squad is looking poised for a Stanley-Cup-or-bust run. They can go far if they stay focused and don’t exaggerate wins like these. Fans must do the same.

Sign up for our free ‘Capitals Substack Newsletter‘ for all the latest.