This would be a heavy and hard-fought playoff series. It would be highly enjoyable to watch. It just may become reality in five months, given their places in the league standings.
Score the first blow for the Capitals.
The top two teams in the Eastern Conference put on a rugged show at TD Garden on Saturday, and while Charlie Coyle scored for the Bruins in the shootout, the Black and Gold dropped a 3-2 decision.
After his club fell to 12-3-5, coach Bruce Cassidy said Washington was the best team they’ve played all year.
“Speed and brawn,” Cassidy said. “Our lineup wasn’t equal to theirs in terms of our typical manpower. We don’t use that as an excuse, but if you’re asking me how to compare teams, you’ve got to bring that in, correct?
“They’re a strong team. They’re one year removed from [winning] the Cup. You can see why. I give our guys credit. I thought we battled hard for most of the night against bigger men.”
They had a lead through 59 minutes without top center Patrice Bergeron, who was held out with a lower-body injury, top puck-mover Torey Krug, and a pile of wingers. They played four players who began the year in the AHL.
Until the final minute of regulation, Boston got what it needed from Coyle and David Pastrnak, who scored, and Jaroslav Halak, who stopped 38 of the first 39 shots he saw.
But T.J. Oshie tied the game at 2 by sniping from the slot with 58.6 seconds left, some 20 seconds after netminder Braden Holtby skated to the bench. Though Halak (42 saves on 44 shots) made three stops in overtime, and shot his arm behind him in the shootout to keep Alex Ovechkin’s bid out of the net, the team with the league’s best record prevailed.
The Capitals (15-3-4) extended their league lead in points (34) over the Bruins, who sit in a four-way tie for second (29) with the Islanders, Blues, and Oilers.
Nicklas Backstrom scored in the third round — tying the shootout after Coyle confidently put one upstairs — and Capitals teammate Jakub Vrana notched the winner with a curl-and-drag move made famous by retired Red Wings great Pavel Datsyuk.
It left a sour taste for Boston, which hopes to get Bergeron back when it visits New Jersey on Tuesday.
The Capitals’ 44 shots were a season-high total, but Halak allowed only a double-deflection goal until Oshie scored on their 39th attempt. The Bruins regretted they couldn’t finish it for their netminder, who declined interview requests after the game.
“Our best player by far,” Cassidy said. “I liked that we really backed Jaro up in that third period, but in the first and second, he made a number of oustanding saves, and again in the shootout.”
The only goal he allowed in the first two periods was credited to Travis Boyd, a point shot from John Carlson that sharply changed direction off the sticks of Boyd and defenseman Urho Vaakanainen.
One of Halak’s best: In the first period, he booted aside a short-range bid by Tom Wilson, who hammered Ovechkin’s cross-ice setup on goal.
The Bruins mustered 15 shots through two periods and finished with 23. The Caps had 30 shots through 40 minutes, and outshot the home team, 18-9, in the first 20. The Bruins went 0 for 3 on the power play, but killed a pair of penalties thanks to their Slovak stopper.
“He didn’t deserve a loss like that,” said Coyle, who extended his point streak to four games (2-3—5). “When they had their pushes and we broke down defensively, him shutting the door kept us with the lead, kept us in the game. He was great.”
The Bruins took a 1-0 lead on Coyle’s fourth of the season, at 11:32 of the first period. The Weymouth product charged through the middle and deposited a slick Danton Heinen feed from the corner, with Anders Bjork tying up a defenseman in front.
Pastrnak created his league-high 17th goal at 3:30 of the second by picking Michal Kempny’s pocket and finishing a broken play. Pastrnak rolled to the middle, went across the grain to David Krejci, who set up Charlie McAvoy in front of a wide-open net. McAvoy missed the on-the-fly chance, but Pastrnak finished a rebound from the goal line.
“They’re a great team,” Pastrnak said. “Heavy team, big bodies, and fast. They want to play up and down.
“We were real close to getting two points. It sucks.”
Better one than none, but this was a chance for the Bruins to make a real statement, taking down the league-leading Caps without a handful of their best players.
“You want 2 points,” Coyle said. “We want to be able to shut the door there. When you have the lead like that, that late in the game, especially for your goaltender. He’s played so well. You want to end on the right note for him.”
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports.