The playoffs are finally upon us. The Capitals finished second in the East Division and will play the third-place Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. Here is everything you need to know.
The seasons series
The Caps went 4-4-0 against Boston in eight games in 2021
Washington: 3.36 goals per game (4th), 24.8% power play (3rd), 129 5-on-5 goals for (2nd), 50.6% Corsi For (12th)
Boston: 2.93 goals per game (13th), 21.9% power play (9th), 106 5-on-5 goals for (tied for 14th), 54.2% Corsi For (3rd)
Washington: Alex Ovechkin (24), T.J. Oshie (22), Nicklas Backstrom (15)
Boston: Brad Marchand (29), Patrice Bergeron (23), David Pastrnak (20)
Washington: Nicklas Backstrom (38), John Carlson (34), Justin Schultz (24)
Boston: Brad Marchand (40), David Krejci (36), David Pastrnak (28)
Washington: Nicklas Backstrom (53), John Carlson (44), T.J. Oshie (43)
Boston: Brad Marchand (69), David Pastrnak (48), Patrice Bergeron (48)
The Bruins have one of the top lines in hockey. Known as the "Perfection Line," Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak are a lethal combination that will give the Caps fits. The question with Boston has always been if they would have enough depth to support that top line? To address this, the Bruins acquired Taylor Hall at the trade deadline and he has been a great fit with eight goals and six assists in 16 games. Remember, Hall had only two goals in 37 games with the Buffalo Sabres. The top six now is legitimate even if the bottom-six remains largely a question mark offensively.
For Washington, depth has not been a problem. General manager Brian MacLellan loaded up on depth in the offseason and that proved to be a prescient strategy as the team has been prepared for a spate of player absences this season and has still managed to thrive. When healthy, the Caps have enough significant pieces that it's hard to know where it all fits.
Edge: If healthy, Washington
"If healthy" is a fairly significant caveat given the number of injury questions the Caps have going in (more on that later), but from top to bottom, Washington is the more explosive offensive team. Their 4th place offense, 2nd place 5-on-5 offense and 3rd place power play all came in a season when significant players have been in and out of the lineup. Would you have expected to see those numbers for a team that lost Ovechkin for 11 games this season? Probably not.
The Perfection Line is the best line in the series, but the Caps boast the deeper offense...if healthy.
Washington: 2.88 goals against per games played (17th), 84.0% penalty kill (5th)
Boston: 2.39 goals against per games played (4th), 86.0% penalty kill (2nd)
Boston had major questions on defense, especially left defense, heading into the season with the loss of Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara, but the Bruins have gotten by with great goaltending and great possession metrics. Ultimately, the Caps can't score if they don't have the puck and that will be the philosophy for Boston defensively heading into the season.
Washington has stuck largely with the same six-man defensive corps for most of the season and look very deep on the blue line. Though they have not had the same level of success as Boston defensively, there have been games when the Caps have played as a five-man unit and have been brilliant on defense, I mean, hang it on the wall in an art gallery, brilliant. They box out the front of the net, force pucks to the perimeter, restrict high-danger shots, use quick transitions to get the puck out and maintain possession. If they can do that consistently, it will be hard to score against them regardless of who is in net.
On paper, the Caps are deeper defensively, but you can't argue with success. The Bruins have been one of the better defensive teams all season long thanks in large part to their heavy possession style of play. I think the Caps have the personnel to be better on defense, I think we have seen glimpses of how well they can play defensively at points this season, but as of now you have to give the edge to Boston because they have been able to do it consistently and Washington has not.
Vitek Vanecek: 37 GP, 21-10-4, .908 save percentage, 2.69 GAA, 2 shutouts
Craig Anderson: 4 GP, 2-1-0, .915 save percentage, 2.13 GAA
Ilya Samsonov: 19 GP, 13-4-1, .902 save percentage, 2.69 GAA, 2 shutouts
Tuukka Rask: 24 GP, 15-5-2, .913 save percentage, 2.28 GAA, 2 shutouts
Jaroslav Halak: 19 GP, 9-6-4, .905 save percentage, 2.53 GAA, 2 shutouts
Jeremy Swayman: 10 GP, 7-3-0, .945 save percentage, 1.50 GAA, 2 shutouts
Dan Vladar: 5 GP, 2-2-1, .886 save percentage, 3.40 GAA
To say that things have not gone the way the Caps expected for them in net this season would be a gross understatement. Henrik Lundqvist was brought in and was held out of the season due to a heart condition before he ever suited up for Washington. That put the Caps' season in the hands of two unproven netminders. Samsonov was expected to earn the No. 1 job this season, but a bout with COVID early in the season gave Vanecek an opportunity to play his way into the conversation. Now with Samsonov still out after being late for a team function and then getting added to the NHL's COVID absence list, it seems like he has taken himself out of the conversation altogether, at least for now. I would expect Anderson to be the backup at the moment.
Vanecek has never played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so we will have to see how he handles the big stage. He has been consistently good, not great, for the Caps this season. His form and technique are very good, but he lacks athleticism. He makes good saves, will rarely allow a goal he shouldn't, but he does not steal many saves either and that's really what you need in the playoffs where great goaltending often is not a luxury but a requirement to advance deep.
The Bruins will be in the steady, capable hands of Rask who boasts a .926 career playoff save percentage and 2.20 GAA. The only real intrigue at the position for Boston is the rise of Swayman who will start the series as the backup behind Rask instead of Halak.
With all due respect to Vanecek, this one's not close. Rask is one of the top goalies in the NHL with a proven track record of NHL success. I'm not even sure Vanecek will stay Washington's No. 1 for the entire series.
Bruce Cassidy has come a long way from his disastrous tenure in Washington. This is his fifth season behind the bench in Boston where he has found some success. After his first season, Cassidy has never failed to advance the Bruins to at least the second round. He even got them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2019 where they came within one win of defeating the St. Louis Blues.
Peter Laviolette is in his first season with the Caps, but has managed to navigate a number of difficult situations. From having to handle a rookie goalie tandem, to the multitude of injuries, to playing in a pandemic, Laviolette has done well to find the success he has to this point.
This is a slight one because Cassidy really seems to be a great fit in Boston. While he has won one conference title in seven seasons, however, I cannot ignore the 19 seasons of NHL head coaching experience Laviolette has nor the Stanley Cup and two additional conference titles he has won, all three of which came with different teams. Taking over new teams is something Laviolette seems to thrive on.
Turn the clock back a year. Would you have believed me If I told you that the Caps and Bruins would be preparing for a playoff series and that Chara would be a regular on the blue line at 44 years old...for Washington? I can hardly believe it now, but here we are.
Chara played 1,023 regular-season games and an additional 150 playoff games with Boston as the captain. He won a Cup there and an additional two conference championships. Now he is playing for Washington's third defensive pair.
When the Bruins offered Chara a reduced role this season, they had to have known it was at least possible that Chara would walk away. Having to play him now in the playoffs has to be the worst possible scenario they could have envisioned when he decided to walk.
Let's get physical
The eight games the Caps and Bruins have played this season have all been extremely physical. Trent Frederic has done his best to try to agitate the Caps which sometimes worked, but not always. Tom Wilson also received a seven-game suspension for a hit he delivered to defenseman Brandon Carlo.
The Caps like to play a physical brand of hockey in the playoffs, but the Bruins have shown they can go toe-to-toe with them in that respect. I expect physical play to be a clear goal for both teams throughout the series.
How healthy are the Caps?
Washington is dealing with a crazy number of injuries and it reached a point that in a game on May 7, they were missing their entire top power play unit (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Carlson) by the third period. Ovechkin and Backstrom played in the regular-season finale, but Kuznetsov, Oshie and Carlson did not. Carlson said Thursday that he will be ready to play for Game 1 and Oshie seems to be progressing. The status is a bit trickier for Kuznetsov who was scratched for being late to a team function and then he landed on the NHL's COVID absence list. Just when he macy actually return to practice remains in question.
Offensively, the Caps are deeper than Boston, but that's no longer the case if they are missing key players from the lineup. Keep an eye out for who is in and who is out in Game 1.
Is goaltending as one-sided as it looks on paper?
These two teams are very evenly matched, at least on paper, in every respect except one: Goaltending. It looks like Vanecek will be Washington's starter for Game 1 playing opposite Rask and that's a pretty clear advantage for Boston.
Just how much? Let me ask you this. If you had to rank all of Washington and Boston's goalies together, where would Vanecek rank? Would he rank behind Halak? What about Swayman? Even if you argue Vanecek would be No. 2 (and there is a reasonable argument to be made) the fact that it is even debatable between him and Boston's two backup netminders reflects how one-sided the goaltending advantage is for the Bruins.
But this can change in a hurry if Vanecek does what he has done all year: Exceed expectations. The fact is, we don't really know what to expect from Vanecek in the playoffs because he's never started a playoff game in the NHL. Can he lift up his game and continue to exceed expectations? We will have to wait and se.
A seven-game series is not a lot of time to have to decide if you need to make a goalie change. Vanecek has to do everything he can to make sure this is not the advantage it appears to be on paper for Boston or Laviolette is going to have to have a quick trigger finger when it comes to making a switch for either Anderson or Samsonov (when he is available) in net.
How physical will this series be and who can use it to their advantage?
The Caps like to play a physical style of hockey, but the Bruins are not a team that is going to be pushed around. Playing physical is great if you do it with a purpose and you do it to help you win. There have been a few games between these two teams this season that have devolved to a point where it looked like the Caps were sidetracked by the physical play and chasing hits rather than chasing the puck. The Caps have to stay focused and use physical play as an asset, not just play physical for the sake of playing physical.
Expect a heavy dose of Frederic in this series. Frederic has shown he can agitate some of the Caps' top players and draw the ire of Wilson. If you are the Bruins, you absolutely take a Wilson-Frederic trade-off. He is going to agitate the Caps until someone engages him. Boston knows Wilson will have to be on his best behavior with the Department of Player Safety watching Wilson like a hawk so why wouldn't you make Frederic a factor against Washington's top six?
What effect will Zdeno Chara have?
When Chara decided to leave for free agency, Boston probably would have preferred not to see him in the playoffs, but here we are.
More than anything else, Chara was brought in for the playoffs. This is what he is here for. Not only does Chara bring all the leadership intangibles to the Caps, but he also knows the Bruins better than anyone. Just what effect a 44-year-old defenseman can have on a postseason run remains to be seen, but if there is any series in which he could have a significant impact, this is it.