Bruins

4 keys for the Bruins in their first-round series against the Capitals

If the Bruins make a deep playoff run, their toughest test might come in the first round.

Matthew J Lee/Globe staff
Patrice Bergeron celebrates a goal with Brad Marchand during an April matchup between the Bruins and the Capitals. The rematch begins Saturday. Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

The Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals engaged in eight physically inducing contests during the 2021 regular season. They’ll at least have four more bruising tilts ahead beginning Saturday night in the nation’s capital.

The Bruins and Capitals split the eight regular-season matchups. Yet, the Caps only saw the Bruins’ current makeover twice after Don Sweeney added Taylor Hall, Mike Reilly, and Curtis Lazar following Boston’s ugly 8-1 loss to Zdeno Chara and company on April 11.

Peter Laviolette’s bunch remained consistent throughout their 56-game slate, eventually landing the second spot in the East Division. With a 12-4-1 mark since the trade deadline, Bruce Cassidy’s squad comes into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league.

From Chara facing his former team again to the controversial Tom Wilson drawing headlines, this Bruins-Capitals series has plenty of intriguing storylines. Here are four keys to a Bruins’ series victory over a highly skilled and physical Caps bunch.

Engage with heavy Caps, but don’t goad Wilson.

The St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning wore out the skilled, but undersized Bruins in their last two postseason exits. Sweeney addressed the physical dilemma with some in-house options ahead of the 2021 campaign — mainly calling up Trent Fredric and re-signing the oft-injured Kevan Miller — before adding a versatile bottom-six option in Lazar.

Boston’s mettle faces a significant test against a bruising Caps bunch with a 6-foot-9 blue-liner at their disposal. Then there’s the whole Wilson conundrum.

The Bruins saw Wilson’s worst tendencies on March 5 when the Caps forward injured Brandon Carlo with a late hit from behind. The NHL Player Safety Department handed Wilson a seven-game suspension as Carlo missed significant time recovering from a concussion.

Wilson nearly found himself sitting again following a chaotic sequence in New York where he landed a few cheap shots at Pavel Buchnevich and slammed Artemi Panarin to the ice. But Wilson escaped with a $5,000 fine for his punch on Buchnevich and no punishment for ending Panarin’s season.

His antics aren’t a well-kept secret. Wilson knows he has a target on his back. The Bruins could try to get under his skin to provoke a retaliatory act, but they’d be wise not to goad him into dangerous territory. After all, it could lead to an injury to one of their star players like Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Taylor Hall, David Krejci, or Charlie McAvoy or even a key cog such as Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk, Charlie Coyle, or Nick Ritchie.

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The Bruins need to remain assertive against Wilson and a physical core of Caps forwards. The more they play to their strengths and establish their own physical presence, the better off they’ll be.

“He’s not flying under the radar from our perspective, everyone knows what kind of player he is. He plays hard and he’ll take the body. We have to expect that,” Bruins President Cam Neely said. “I don’t think that’s going to change. We also need to focus on how we need to play and what we need to do to be successful. We have to be smart. More importantly, we’ve got to be careful with their power play. We’ve got to try to stay out of the box as much as possible.”

Speaking of Washington’s potent man-advantage unit…

Limit the damage on the Caps’ potent power play.

Even without Chara eating up valuable minutes, Boston’s penalty kill finished the year with the league’s second-highest success rate (86 percent), trailing only the Vegas Golden Knights. Their shorthanded prowess will face their toughest test of the season with Alex Ovechkin captaining a dynamic third-ranked Washington power play (converting on 24.8 percent of their chances).

And it’s not just the percentages that stand out. The Bruins tallied over 300 minutes of shorthanded time on ice, trailing only the Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks. The Caps finished 23rd in the league in power-play opportunities. Yet with weapons like Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov (when healthy) manning the top unit, they’ve made the most of their rather slim time spent on the man advantage.

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Want to stop Ovechkin from delivering his patented one-timer from the left face-off spot? How about preventing Carlson from creating opportunities from the point? Perhaps they’ll want to stop Oshie at the bumper position. Or Kuznetsov (currently in COVID protocol) from setting up shop in the net area. Or Backstrom from making plays at the half-wall.

Essentially, the Bruins have to pick their poison whenever they’re shorthanded.

“As long as [Ovechkin] keeps hitting it and scoring on it, you got to account for it, which opens up Oshie on the bumper a lot, so you’re always picking your poison. And then if you’re overplaying those guys, Carlson can shoot it from the top,” Cassidy said of Washington’s power play. “They’ve got a lot of different weapons. Kuznetsov will go hide from the back post and Backstrom would hit him there if you take away the three righties from his play in the half-wall. So they always seem to have an answer with no matter what they do.”

Luckily, the Bruins have a distinct advantage between the pipes. This will surely alleviate some of the pressure for a stellar penalty kill unit in their toughest matchup this year.

Expose the goaltending disparity.

Laviolette won’t reveal his Game 1 netminder until Saturday. No matter who the Caps bench boss trots out, the Bruins have a significant edge between the pipes.

Tuukka Rask returns to postseason action after exiting the Toronto bubble to attend to a family matter. Though he spent some time this year nursing a lingering upper-body ailment, Boston’s all-time winningest netminder provided a steady hand again in net.

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For all of his accomplishments, Rask hasn’t hoisted the Cup in a starting role. He guided the team to two appearances in the Final only to fall short in an epic Game 6 clincher for the Blackhawks in 2013 and a bitter Game 7 loss to the Blues six years later.

Certainly, Rask will have his work cut out for him against Washington’s fifth-ranked offense. Yet, in a transitional year on the back end, Rask, Jeremy Swayman, and Boston’s goaltending received stellar support from the blue-line, allowing the third-fewest goals in the league with 132.

Amid a trio of goalies, the Caps finished in the middle of the pack in goals allowed. Vitek Vanecek stood out among the likes of fellow rookie Ilya Samsonov and veteran Craig Anderson, appearing in 37 games sporting a .908 save percentage and a 2.69 goals-against average. But Laviolette hasn’t provided a vote of confidence just yet for Vanecek as he evaluates his goaltending in the hours leading up to Game 1.

Laviolette found himself in this position 11 years ago with Michael Leighton and current NBC analyst Brian Boucher. The Flyers came back from a 3-0 deficit during Rask’s rookie season in 2010 with Leighton providing a stable job in the final few games of their epic comeback.

Perhaps the Washington bench boss will tab the 39-year-old Anderson in Game 1 as well. After all, Anderson is a few years removed from backstopping the Ottawa Senators to within a game of the Stanley Cup Final, a run that began with a first-round triumph over the Bruins in six games.

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The Bruins have the goaltending advantage on paper. Even with all his success, Rask, in the final year of his deal, has something to prove to his outspoken detractors. Justified or not, the heat from sports talk radio and social media will only intensify if Rask can’t come through when it matters most.

Building on the 5v5 scoring uptick.

The Bruins sat at 29th in 5v5 goal production following their 8-1 loss to the Capitals.

My what a difference a few additions made.

Hall’s arrival finally gave Krejci a formidable second-line scoring winger. Craig Smith’s shot-first playmaking skills became the last piece to that second line puzzle. Combine that with the potent top line of Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak and you have two potent scoring trios.

The bottom-six eventually found their groove following Lazar’s arrival. Nick Ritchie continued his stellar bounce-back season in a third-line role. Sean Kuraly and Charlie Coyle (prior to injury) snapped out of their scoring funks. Amidst a disappointing season, Jake DeBrusk slowly found a rhythm on the fourth line with Lazar and a rotating door of wingers, including Chris Wagner and Trent Frederic.

Reilly’s addition on the back-end provided a stable puck-moving presence. The Bruins now have three stellar offensive-minded blue-liners in Reilly, Matt Grzelcyk, and Charlie McAvoy creating offense in the transition game.

The pieces came together nicely. The Bruins netted 63 5v5 goals prior to the trade deadline. They finished the year with 107 5v5 tallies, jumping all the way from 29th to 13th in full-strength scoring production. Since the trade deadline, Boston and Vegas notched the most 5v5 lamplighters with 44.

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The Blues and Lightning exposed Boston’s 5v5 scoring issues over the last three postseason exits. It took a while for Sweeney to address this need. But with a healthy balance among the four lines and three defensive pairs, the Bruins have set themselves up for another deep playoff run. Yet, they begin this year’s playoffs with arguably the toughest matchup possible.

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