3 keys to the Boston Bruins first round series against the Washington Capitals

With the Boston Bruins 3-2 overtime victory over the New York Islanders Monday night, they officially locked up their spot in the first round, playing the Washington Capitals in a 7 game series in which the Capitals will have the home ice advantage. This is the 5th straight season the Bruins have reached the playoffs and Bruce Cassidy’s 5th straight playoff appearance as head coach as well.

This season has been anything but conventional, and the Bruins have experienced their fair share of ups and downs throughout the season, as have most teams. The B’s started the season hot, with a record of 10-1-2 to start the season, but faced adversity throughout the season with COVID-19 related stoppages, losing streaks, and numerous injuries to key players. Heading into the playoffs though, the Bruins have been playing some of their best hockey in the past month or so. With Game 1 set for this Saturday, let’s take a look at what the Bruins need to do in order to advance past a strong Washington Capitals squad.

Goaltending

Tuukka Rask remains out for Bruins Tuesday vs Devils

Tuukka Rask is one of the best goalies in the NHL when he is healthy and engaged, but in the past, he has shown that his motivation and health can be unpredictable. Take for example in 2016, when the Bruins needed to win the final game of the season to make the playoffs and he didn’t play for what is still an unknown reason. Or last year when he left the bubble in order to be with his family, leaving the Bruins with Jaro Halak and Dan Vladar. Obviously, you can’t knock on a guy for prioritizing his family in what was a difficult time for people with the pandemic in full swing, but it does go to show that there is no guarantee that Rask will be in it for the long haul. 

Rask is a proven goalie, with his only knock being that his competitive nature can sometimes be absent. That’s not to say that he isn’t a competitive person, as we have seen him go berserk on the ice when he gets frustrated which shows that he really does want to win when he’s on the ice, but it’s always a possibility that he’ll disappear.

With all that being said, Rask is still the Bruins number one goalie and gives them the best chance to make a deep run. He has led the team on deep playoff runs before, taking them all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2013 and 2019 and winning playoff games in almost every season he has been the Bruins starting goalie. Rask should have extra motivation this year as well for a few different reasons.

First and foremost, with a Stanley Cup this year, he could turn his legacy from a 50/50 shot at getting into the Hall of Fame to guaranteed admission when the time comes. He is already the winningest goalie in Bruins history, and has both a Vezina and Jennings Trophy to his name. He has taken the Bruins on memorable playoff runs and with a Stanley Cup added to his resumé, he would cement his legacy among hockey fans all over the world. 

Secondly, with his contract expiring this year combined with the emergence of the young Jeremy Swayman, Rask could be playing for a job in Boston. It has become evident that Swayman is likely the goalie of the future in Boston regardless of what happens this year, and it’s just a matter of when the organization wants to make the transition. Rask also is one of the highest paid players on the team, and it’s likely that the Bruins will want to make space for some new additions next season, so if Rask really wants to stay in Boston, he is going to have to prove that he is worth a future investment. 

With a couple of added chips on his shoulder, hopefully Tuukka Rask is ready to anchor the Bruins past the Caps in round one and beyond, and silence his critics around the the NHL.

5-on-5 Scoring

Boston Bruins should prioritize rest over playoff seeding

Ever since the Bruins added Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar, and Mike Reilly at the trade deadline, the Bruins offense has shifted drastically. For a long time, the Bruins have been a team that excels on the power play, but mightily struggles at 5-on-5 scoring. Until about six weeks ago, the Bruins were one of the worst 5-on-5 scoring teams in the NHL.

But with a revamped second line, as well as a newly energized bottom 6 forward group, the Bruins have improved into one of best 5-on-5 scoring teams in the league. This trend will need to continue as the team begins their series with Washington. The Capitals have multiple elite goal scorers, as well as Nicklas Backstrom, one of the most underrated playmakers in the league. They will score a lot of goals, and the Bruins need to be able to keep pace with them, without relying on their power play so much, as they have in the past. 

As much as they struggled early on scoring goals, the Bruins have actually done well in high scoring games against the Caps. In the Bruins four victories against Washington this season, they have scored at least 4 goals, which goes to show that if they can hang a few goals up especially early in the game, they will have ample opportunities to take the Capitals down. Just to emphasize how important scoring will be in this series, in the Bruins 4 losses to the Capitals, they scored a combined 6 goals, only scoring one goal in 3 of the 4 games. 

It will also be important to emphasize 5-on-5 scoring, because the Capitals have a top 5 penalty kill unit. Last year, it became clear in their series with the Tampa Bay Lightning that the Bruins were too reliant on their power play, and it came back to bite them as they lost in five games to a team known for their goal scoring. If the Bruins are unable to keep pace with the Capitals, who will score plenty of goals like the Lightning did and still do, they will struggle to win games and likely get bounced in round 1. 

Staying Healthy on the Defensive End

With Brandon Carlo close to return, what will be Bruins' ideal D pairings  come playoffs? | Boston Sports Journal

As we’ve seen this year, when the Bruins defense isn’t fully healthy, it is a completely different product on the ice. Playing against one of the stronger teams in the league, the Bruins will need to have certain guys healthy, especially Kevan Miller and Brandon Carlo, who have both missed extended time this year. We know that with Charlie McAvoy we’re getting one of the best two way defenders in the league, and with Matt Grzelcyk a solid offensive defenseman, but as a pair, they will likely be exposed against big strong power forwards like T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson. Both guys work better without each other and with Miller and Carlo back in the lineup, they can both effectively play their individual styles of hockey. 

Kevan Miller will bring toughness and positionally sound defense to the lineup. He will be vitally important to keeping the Bruins smaller and relatively weaker guys safe against bullies like Tom Wilson. The Capitals as a whole are a strong, physical team, and with Miller on the ice, Caps players may think twice before going after smaller guys, knowing that Miller will be waiting for them. Miller also plays sound defense which will be important when looking at holding scorers like Alex Ovechkin back long enough for the Bruins to strike first on the scoreboard. 

Brandon Carlo is another defensive defenseman, and at his peak is arguably the best defender on the team. Him and Grzelcyk have solid chemistry and fit very well together as Carlo’s defensive responsibility allows Grzelcyk to take more chances on the offensive end. 

If the Bruins have McAvoy, Grzelcyk, Miller, and Carlo in the lineup, they provide a formidable defense against the Capitals high flying offense. So long as all of these guys are able to stay on the ice, they will give the Bruins every chance to make a deep playoff run this season.

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