Time for Capitals to Elevate Their Game vs. Bruins

While the Washington Capitals would prefer to be playing for a chance to earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the opening round of the 2020 National Hockey League Playoffs, Sunday’s final round-robin contest against the winless Boston Bruins has taken on added importance.

The game, scheduled for a noon Eastern start, is important to the 0-1-1 Caps for multiple reasons.

Nobody Plays to Lose

First, if you’re going to play in games that count for something, you might as well play to win, and no competitive professional athlete wants to finish last – even in a three-game round robin after nearly five months off.

Pro hockey players reach that level at least in part because of their extraordinary competitive drive. None of these guys like to lose, and no one wants to get into the habit of losing, especially with the playoffs looming. Confidence can be an amazing thing, just ask the Montreal Canadiens or Chicago Blackhawks.

Nobody expected perfection out of a Capitals team – or any team, for that matter – that had three short weeks to prepare as a group following such a long layoff. Given the veteran nature of Washington’s lineup, as well as the uncertainty of who their next opponent might be with Qualifying Round winners being re-seeded before the actual playoffs begin, no one should be surprised that the team eased into the postseason and has yet to deliver playoff-style intensity for a full 60 minutes.

Caps’ Priority is Round 1

Head coach Todd Reirden made his team’s priorities clear after John Carlson suffered what is thought to be a minor injury in the Caps’ 3-2 exhibition-game victory against Carolina July 29.

John Carlson, Washington Capitals, NHL, London Knights
Carlson has yet to see action in the round-robin. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“We’re not going to put him in a situation where he can further risk injury and it could hinder his performance going forward,” the coach said in a media session following that game. “Our most important games are going to be the first round, so we’ll make a decision based on where he’s at health-wise and recovery-wise.”

True to his word, Reirden has not played his Norris Trophy-finalist defenseman in the Capitals’ first two round-robin contests – a 3-2 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Aug. 3 and a 3-1 setback against the Philadelphia Flyers three days later. Carlson has practiced with the team, but been a game-time decision in the two losses. His status remains unchanged heading into the Boston contest.

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“It would be great to get him a game (in the round-robin), but the No. 1 thing is that we’re not putting him out there with a chance to make an injury worse,” Reirden reiterated to the media before the Flyers loss. “He’s too important to our team. That being said, I wouldn’t do that to any of our players. These are important games, but the key is to push forward so we’re as healthy as we possibly can be for Round 1, Game 1.”

Following Reirden’s Lead

When the message being sent from the top is that Round 1 is what’s important, it makes sense that a veteran team that won a championship just two years ago might pace itself and use the round-robin games as stepping stones to prepare for playoff speed and intensity when the first round gets underway.

Todd Reirden, Washington Capitals
Reirden is preaching patience. (Mark Shiver/THW)

While that approach has led to some frustration for fans, periods of lackluster play and a lack of physicality in a pair of round-robin losses following the workmanlike pre-tournament win against the Hurricanes, there have been a number of positive signs during Washington’s first three contests following the COVID-induced layoff.

Despite some glaring defensive-zone breakdowns that the Flyers capitalized on to record their three goals, the Caps generally have been strong in their own end, surrendering seven goals in three bubble outings, including the exhibition. That works out 2.33 goals allowed per game, much better than their regular-season average of 3.07. They also allowed just 24.5 shots on goal per game in the round-robin losses and surrendered 27 shots in the exhibition.

Holtby Shines with Carlson Out

Washington has done that with Carlson, its top defenseman, mostly watching from the stands, which clearly has hurt the team’s power play and ability to break the puck out. Still, the pairing of Nick Jensen and Jonas Siegenthaler has been a pleasant surprise, and for the most part, the team has clamped down in front of its own net.

While the Capitals did take a step back defensively vs. Philadelphia, the mistakes allowed Braden Holtby to shine and continue rounding into form. Holtby has looked strong while manning the net for all but one exhibition period out of 185 total minutes – plus a shootout – since the team arrived in Toronto. He thwarted several point-blank odd-man chances in acrobatic fashion to keep his team in the game against the Flyers.

Braden Holtby Capitals Washington
Holtby has be excellent in net, so far. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Including the exhibition, Holtby is 1-1-1 with a 2.18 goals-against average (GAA) and a .903 save percentage (SV%), a substantial improvement over his regular-season numbers. Reirden has spoken about the need for Holtby to play regularly and get into a playoff rhythm. The coach has no plans to change that approach against the Bruins.

I think this best prepares (Holtby) for Round 1, Game 1, getting more in-game action, after discussion with him and how he’s been feeling and continuing to have him build his game for the playoffs.

Capitals head coach Todd Reirden in an Aug.7 media session

Other Encouraging Signs for Caps

In addition to the overall better defensive numbers and Holtby’s steady performance, the Capitals’ fourth line of Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway and Richard Panik has continued to bring energy and physical play, with Panik notching the team’s first goal against Tampa Bay.

Forward Jakub Vrana’s play also has been encouraging. His explosiveness led to a pair of failed breakaways, including one in overtime against the Lighting, and he was extremely active on the second power-play unit against the Flyers. Travis Boyd also filled in admirably for Lars Eller, who back in the Washington area for the birth of his second child, as the third-line center, potting the Capitals’ only goal against the Flyers.

Richard Panik Washington Capitals
Panik provides physicality and scoring depth. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The defensive breakdowns that cost the Caps against Philadelphia may not be as catastrophic as they appear on the surface. One was caused by a bad defensive-zone turnover by Radko Gudas, the team’s seventh defenseman who is in the lineup only as a result of Carlson’s injury. The other two were the result of center Evgeny Kuznetsov losing track of his defensive-zone assignment.

That brings us to the second reason Washington’s final round-robin game against Boston is so important.

Time for Top Guys to Step Up

Kuznetsov, one of the Capitals’ top playmakers, normally would be asked to log more ice time than usual if the team is behind late in a game. Against the Flyers, he was benched following the two defensive mishaps.

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“How we break down ice time and use certain guys, we’re going with who’s playing the best at that time,” Reirden said after the Philadelphia game. “We need a different level of play, and we know we have it. It’s not a secret. We have a different level of play and we need to get to it if we want to have success.”

Washington Capitals Evgeny Kuznetsov
Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

Reirden’s message to reporters after the game and the following day made it crystal clear that it’s time for the team to elevate its game. This year’s tournament already has proven that it’s hard for teams to just turn it on when they need to, and win or lose, it would be in their best interest to bring a playoff approach to the round-robin finale.

You can be assured that the Bruins, who were the NHL’s top regular-season team, are not going to go through the motions and just accept an 0-3 record and the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed without a fight.

While there have been positive signs for Washington in areas that need to be strong, the top-six forwards have to be more consistent while getting more pucks to the net and creating more chances. The power-play zone entries must improve and the defensive pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Brenden Dillon needs to develop chemistry.

We took a step back with our performance (against the Flyers), and we need to get our game headed in the right direction. Whoever that involves in our lineup, we’ll see who’s ready come game time and we’ll go from there. We’ve got to get more from our players, and this is our last chance to do it before Round 1, Game 1.

Capitals head coach Todd Reirden to the media Aug. 7

And while there’s no doubt that Washington needs to ramp up its energy, intensity and physical play against the Bruins to get into the proper mindset heading into the first round – while also drastically reducing the seven penalties incurred against the Flyers – there’s another compelling reason for them to take their game to another level.

Pick Your Poison

A loss and Washington would face sixth-seeded Carolina, which turned in the most impressive Qualifying Round performance of any team by sweeping the Rangers. The Hurricanes always play the Capitals tough and are a more talented and deeper team than the one that ended their dreams of a Stanley Cup repeat in the second overtime of Game 7 during last year’s opening round.

Already a solid and deep team, both up front and on the back end, the Hurricanes benefitted from the return of “retired” clutch playoff performer and former Capitals forward Justin Williams in January. They also acquired top-six forward Vincent Trocheck and top-four-caliber defensemen Sami Vatanen and Brady Skej at the trade deadline. On top of that, All-Star defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who was mentioned as a Norris Trophy candidate before breaking his leg, has returned to practice after missing the Qualifying Round.

Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals and Justin Williams of the Carolina Hurricanes
A rematch with the Hurricanes could be looming. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

A Capitals victory against Boston would set up a showdown against the seventh-seeded Islanders and former head coach Barry Trotz. While Trotz is one of the game’s bench masterminds and certainly knows more than anyone about Washington’s strengths and weaknesses, New York simply doesn’t stack up to Carolina in terms of depth and talent.

The Capitals and Islanders have split their last eight regular-season matchups, with Washington winning seven of the last 12 meetings and 12 of the last 21.

While both potential opponents present tremendous challenges and are well-coached – and coaches never speak publicly about preferring to face one team over another – based on recent history, it appears as though the Islanders would be a better matchup for the Capitals.

But no matter who the Capitals face in the first round, they will set the tone for that series when they take the ice against the Bruins Sunday.

“Initially there was excitement and curiosity to see how the whole bubble situation was going to work out,” Reirden said before the Flyers game. “I think that was from everybody – coaches, trainers, players, everybody when we first got into the bubble – and now that it’s becoming more the norm, we start to focus more on hockey and what we’re here to do.”