WASHINGTON — For the first time since dropping Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins will be on the ice Saturday night for a playoff game with real live fans in the stands, and that sweet, intoxicating scent of postseason acrimony in the air.
Bubble-free hockey, Stanley Cup play as we used to know it — albeit with the crowd still downsized because of COVID protocols — begins anew with the Bruins and Capitals set to slug out a best-of-seven series.
It will be fast, for sure, and it could be a rough one from the start. Neither side will need to ease into this one. All the “feeling out” died between the Capitals and Bruins over the course of eight regular-season matchups, including March 5 at the Garden when Washington forward Tom Wilson drove Brandon Carlo’s noggin hard into the glass and was suspended for seven games.
“I think it will come to a head quicker,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy predicted, just before his club flying here for Saturday’s 7:15 p.m. puck drop. “Bad blood’s already there.”
“Discipline is what we talk about,” added Capitals coach Peter Laviolette, noting the importance of controlled emotions, intelligent play at this time of the year. “But then the games get played and you hope you are on the good side of that.”
Wilson, 6 feet 4 inches, 220 pounds and barely an ounce of impulse control, is an “X” factor for the Capitals and perhaps the biggest one of the series. The Bruins, along with 14 other playoff teams, don’t have his comp in their lineup. He is big, can shoot, and he can set a tone with his physical, oft-over-the-top play that has opponents constantly looking over shoulders and short-circuiting plays.
If he gets to his peak game and keeps within the rulebook, Wilson is a valuable asset for the Capitals. If he bubbles over, he’s a liability, potentially one that could wreck the series. The Bruins will hope to tease out Bad Tom.
About to play their 56th playoff game with Cassidy behind their bench, the Bruins enter the series with a decided experience edge in net. Vitek Vanecek, the presumed Capitals starter, will be making his Stanley Cup debut at age 25. Tuukka Rask, sharp down the stretch after recovering from a late-season back strain, will be making his 94th playoff appearance.
Typically, experience in net is a huge postseason advantage. Though keep in mind, Laviolette was in charge of the Carolina bench when 22-year-old rookie Cam Ward backed the Hurricanes to the 2006 Cup.
“He didn’t start the first two games [in ’06], but he played most of the games after that,” Laviolette recalled. “He won MVP [Conn Smythe] and we won the Stanley Cup, so . . . I think once you are with someone for a while, for a year, and they’ve played the games, and you’ve counted on them . . . This is our team and these are our guys and we’ve had success this year by counting on our guys.”
In other words, rookie goalie, fingers crossed.
Laviolette refused to name his starter, but the Bruins are planning on Vanecek. Fellow rookie tender Ilya Samsonov has been among a number of Capitals coping with injury and has played in only one game since April 24. So unless Henrik Lundqvist comes walking the door, it’ll be V2.
Meanwhile, the Capitals should have John Carlson, their top-scoring defenseman, and TJ Oshie, gritty and prolific right winger, back in action after recent injury spells. Ditto for top gun Alex Ovechkin, who suited up in Tuesday’s 2-1 win here over the Bruins. He’s also been dinged up of late.
It remains a mystery as to whether the Capitals will get a shift out of dynamic center Evgeny Kuznetsov, a huge contributor (32 points) to their Cup win in ’18. The slick pivot went on the COVID protocol list May 4 and hasn’t been seen since. All of the injury issues have left in question what Laviolette will design as his No. 1 power play unit. The Capitals had the NHL’s No. 3 power play over the course of 56 games. Now Laviolette will have to reconfigure the pieces.
The Bruins have avoided the injury bug of late. In fact, they’re in their best shape since league play re-started in mid-January, though there’s no telling if injured winger Ondrej Kase will be seen again. Otherwise, the only concern is No. 7-8 rookie blueliner Jakub Zboril, who wouldn’t be called upon unless something goes awry in the six pack on defense.
Beyond the edge in net, the Bruins also own a rare advantage up front, given the combination of hobbled Capitals forwards and the dynamic addition of Taylor Hall to the David Krejci-Craig Smith trio. With those three doing business behind top-enders Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak since the April 12 trade deadline, the production of the top two lines has been in near lockstep. Because of Hall, who has rejuvenated Krejci, the Bruins were the league’s most productive 5-on-5 team post-trade deadline. A stunning reversal for a team stymied much of the year at even strength and only spared from being a playoff DNQ by an exceptional penalty kill (second only to Vegas).
Ex-Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, viewed as an aged spare part by the Bruins after last season, came here to win a Cup. Now he has his chance, and Big Z will be his standard, towering presence on the Capitals penalty kill unit.
He’ll also be a target, with Boston’s four right wingers (Pastrnak, Smith, Charlie Coyle and likely Chris Wagner) trained on trying to get Big Z spinning like the Wizard of Oz scarecrow with quick, effective checking along the rear wall and in the corner.
Likewise, the Capitals will have plucked video clips from that Bruins-St. Louis Cup Final, in which the Boston backline was diminished when both Matt Grzelcyk (concussion) and Kevan Miller (fractured kneecap) were out of the mix.
They remain key to the Bruins defensive scheme, particularly with Grzelcyk now paired with Charlie McAvoy on the No. 1 unit. If the Capitals can take out the downsized Grzelcyk then rookie Jeremy Lauzon moves up two rungs from his pairing with Miller. That could be trouble.
“Instead of a build up, where gradually you get to Game 4, and all of a sudden the nastiness starts . . .” mused Cassidy, “. . . I think you’ll just see it sooner. Familiarity will breed contempt quicker.”
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