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NHL playoffs: How the Bruins plan to balance aggressiveness with playing smart against the Capitals

The Bruins were 4-2-2 against the hard-hitting Washington Capitals this season.
The Bruins were 4-2-2 against the hard-hitting Washington Capitals this season.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

After eight bruising regular-season battles against the Washington Capitals, the Bruins understand that intensity and physicality come with the territory.

When the teams open up the Stanley Cup playoffs Saturday, the chippiness will naturally dial up. But for the Bruins, a key will be matching the Capitals’ intensity while staying within their identity.

“I think it’s no secret that Washington is a team that has high energy, plays physical, has got high-end talent, and is very deep throughout the lineup,” Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron said. “So for us, it’s about what we can bring against that. I think we kind of have some of the same attributes where I think we can play that heavy game, but also we play a high-energy, fast game. It’s going to be playoff hockey. That’s what we expect. And that’s what we’re kind of looking forward to.”

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The Bruins were 4-2-2 against the Capitals this season. The Capitals set an aggressive tone, even if it meant racking up penalties. At times, the Bruins got caught up in responding to that aggressiveness, and coach Bruce Cassidy said it’s something they will have to be mindful of with more at stake.

“That’s one thing we have to do, and not get away from, is get caught up in matching them hit for hit,” Cassidy said. “When hits are there, you’ve got to take them and you’ve got to show that, hey, we’re going to wear you down as the series goes along, as well.”

The Bruins are expecting a physical playoff series against the Capitals, as has been the case just about every time they met this season.
The Bruins are expecting a physical playoff series against the Capitals, as has been the case just about every time they met this season.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

For as physical as the Capitals can be, the Bruins piled up 111 penalty minutes in the regular-season matchups, and the Capitals used it to their advantage with nine power-play goals. The Capitals finished the season third in power-play percentage (24.8) and tied for fifth in power-play goals (38), so Cassidy wants to make sure his team doesn’t play into Washington’s hands with any careless aggression.

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“We have to be careful that that’s not our focus of, ‘OK, we’re going to get in there and we’re going to hit everything that moves,’ ” Cassidy said. “And all of a sudden now you’re getting penalties for chasing hits, so to speak.”

The Bruins’ strength, Cassidy said, is their ability to adapt to different styles. They can embrace a rugged game if need be, but they’ll thrive by leaning on skill.

“I think we’ve always been able to play both ways,” Cassidy said. “We’ve been able to skate with teams and we’ve been able to dish out our share hits and take them to make a play. So, that’s got to be our mentality is we’re going to play the right way and play hard.”

Against the Capitals, Cassidy said, the Bruins will have to walk the line between playing hard and playing smart.

“Hard also means having the puck and taking a hit to make a play,” Cassidy said. “Hard means retaliating in the right way. It means if they do happen to finish a check hard and we don’t like it, sometimes you’ve got to take a number and say, OK, they bang one of our guys, we’ve got to go put some pressure on [John] Carlson or [Nicklas] Backstrom or whatever the case may be.

“That’s how you answer some of that, is by being physical within the boundaries of the law against their skill, as well. And I think teams that do that are effective because that will frustrate them as much as anything, seeing their top guys getting hit.”

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Knowing when and how much to press the issue can swing a series, Cassidy said, especially between teams with so much history.

“There’s a little bit of that gamesmanship that goes into every series with every opponent,” Cassidy said. “This one just happens to be two teams that the temperature does go up with us. So keeping your cool is going to be very important, especially when you’re playing the same team for what could be as much as two weeks.”

Charlie McAvoy knows one of the keys to beating the Capitals will be for the Bruins to take care of their own business.
Charlie McAvoy knows one of the keys to beating the Capitals will be for the Bruins to take care of their own business.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Knowing the possible detours a series like this can take, Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said composure will be key.

“I think it’s just about getting to our game, what allows us to have success,” McAvoy said. “When we’re at our best, we’re skating, we’re defending. I feel like it really always starts there for us — taking care of our end and then getting on the offensive side.

“But if we can kind of establish our game quick, I think that’ll obviously work in our favor. And all we’re really concerned about is us in here and what we need to do to prepare.”


Julian Benbow can be reached at julian.benbow@globe.com.