The time has finally come: the 2021 NHL playoffs start tomorrow night! The Bruins and the Capitals will kick off the festivities at 7:15 pm on NBC, and they are the only game tomorrow night. As such (and because I’m a Bruins fan), I took a closer look at each team heading into this series to figure out who has the advantage in each key category: offense, defense, and goaltending. I am far too superstitious to make an official prediction about it, so if that’s what you’re looking for, check out this great article by fellow CGS writer Jess Donahue here. Now, without further ado, let’s dig in.
Starting with the offense, I give the Bruins the advantage here for a few reasons. For starters, their offense has been on fire since the trade deadline, and they now have the secondary, balanced scoring that they’ve so desperately needed for quite some time now. But, it is true that the Capitals have more goals per game over the course of the season than the Bruins (3.41 to the Bruins 3.0). However, since the trade deadline (which is what really matters now), the Bruins have scored 3.47 goals per game to the Capitals’ 3.21.
On top of (and perhaps even more importantly than) that, the Bruins have health on their side (for now at least). Alex Ovechkin is dealing with an injury that caused him to sit out nine (and only play one shift of another) of the Capitals’ final 11 games. Considering Ovi had previously missed just 17 games due to injury in his career, that’s significant. He isn’t the only forward who’s dealing with something either. T.J. Oshie has been dealing with a leg injury, and has yet to be cleared for Game 1. Nicholas Backstrom, the Capitals point leader this season, is also dealing with a nagging injury.
So, none of those three are at 100%. Considering they were the Capitals’ top three point-getters for forwards, that’s far from ideal. Combined, they scored 32% of all Capitals goals this season. All three of them will still play and will likely still do well. But they will not be at their best, which they need to be if they want to keep up with Boston. So, the offensive advantage goes to the Bruins because of their balanced attack and current health status.
As for the defense, I give a slight advantage to Washington here. Statistically, the Bruins were the better defensive team this season despite a rather mind-boggling number of injuries. They allowed 2.43 goals per game while the Capitals allowed 2.91. They’re also the healthier bunch right now, given John Carlson, the Capitals’ number one defenseman, is dealing with a nagging injury. However, the Capitals defensemen have one thing that the Bruins’ do not: experience and Stanley Cup-winning experience at that.
The impact of experience cannot be quantified, but it is invaluable. All but one of their defensemen (Nick Jensen, who’s on their third-pair) has significant playoff experience, and four of them have won a combined five Stanley Cups. None of the Bruins’ top-six defensemen have won a Cup, and four of them are under the age of 24. Only half of them have even played in a Stanley Cup Final. So, they have some experience, but it’s nowhere near the level of the Capitals. For that reason, the Caps get the advantage here, because experience is more important in the playoffs than any stats I could spit out.
Advantage: Boston (and it isn’t even remotely close)
Last but not least, we have goaltending. This is by far the biggest difference between the two teams. The Bruins have a clear advantage in this category, and anyone who thinks differently needs to just stop thinking. Tuukka Rask is a proven playoff performer despite what his haters think, and if you don’t believe me, check out this amazing article by Michael Hurley. He’s always been outstanding, and if he’s healthy, there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be that way again. Behind him, the Bruins have Jeremy Swayman, who’s just a rookie, but he’s been very, very good. Experience is important, but Swayman seems like someone who’ll step up the plate on the first go-around, and if he can’t, then the Bruins can turn to old reliable Jaroslav Halak.
Meanwhile, the Capitals have Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov. Neither of them have played in so much as a single playoff game, and have only played in 80 career regular-season games. Vanecek and Samsonov have both been ok this season, but not spectacular. They’ve also been particularly bad against the Bruins (for the exact numbers, again see the above-linked article), which is not exactly what Capitals fans want to see. They’re giant question marks, and it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll pull a Matt Murray and go on a tear. It’s possible, but not exactly promising.
To make matters worse, Samsonov (along with forward Evgeny Kuznetsov) is on the NHL’s COVID-19 list and has been for the past 11 days. So, that leaves Craig Anderson as Vanecek’s backup for now, who’ll be 40 years old next week and only played in two NHL games this season. So, the Capitals better hope nothing happens to Vanecek and he can at least play passably.
All in all, this is likely to be a close series. In my opinion, the Bruins have an edge in two categories right now, but that could change quickly if injuries happen. It could also not end up mattering, because as my fellow writer Jess pointed out in her article linked at the beginning of this, penalties could be a big factor in this series as well. Regardless though, expect this to be a hard-fought, physical series that comes down to the wire. It would be very surprising to see this one go less than six games. The Bruins and the Capitals are very well-matched, and I for one can’t wait for 7:15 pm tomorrow!
-Lydia Murray (@lydia_murray12)
Featured image courtesy of Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images.
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