2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs
The Bruins and Capitals are set for a physical clash in their first playoff meeting since 2012. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Welcome to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, unlike any we’ve ever seen before. I wrote basically the same message at the start of last year’s playoffs, and while this year’s tournament is different than 2020’s, it’s also still unique. Realigned divisions, eliminating wild cards and the conference structures, and a 56-game pandemic-shortened season have produced an incredibly unique tournament. The atmosphere won’t quite be the same as a normal year, but at least there will be some fans on hand to experience this year’s tournament. And despite all the adversity that everyone in the hockey world has faced this season, it’s sure to be a great one.

Over the last decade, the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins have been two of the league’s most consistently successful teams. They’ve combined for more Stanley Cup Finals appearances (four) than playoff misses (three) since 2011. Each team has won a Stanley Cup in that window, too. But with core players like Patrice Bergeron, Alex Ovechkin, Brad Marchand, and Nicklas Backstrom on the wrong side of 30, time is running out if they hope to repeat. Only one of these gritty, talented East Division squads will live to see the second round. Who’s it gonna be?

#2 Washington Capitals (36-15-5) vs. #3 Boston Bruins (33-16-7)

Recent History: It’s the first playoff meeting for these clubs since 2012. Only Bergeron, Marchand, David Krejci, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and John Carlson remain from that series. The underdog Capitals took it on a Game 7 overtime winner from Mike Knuble. Oh, and Zdeno Chara is still around, but he switched sides last fall.

The Last Time Here: For the second time in three years, the Bruins won Game 1 in the second round against the Lightning only to drop the next four. Washington came out flat in the bubble and never found their stride, losing in five to the Islanders, making their second straight first-round exit.

Season Series: Both teams won four apiece, but Boston technically takes it by having two loser points to the Capitals’ none. Though Washington did win the season finale against Boston on a last-second winner by deadline pick-up Michael Raffl. Brad Marchand has torched the Capitals all season, scoring 13 points against them this year.

Washington Wins Because: They’re built for the playoffs. Players like Garnet Hathaway, actual ax murder Tom Wilson, and, oh yeah, former Bruins captain Chara play the physical style that defines playoff hockey. As the third most recent Cup champion, the Capitals know what it takes to win it all as well. Almost every key player from that run is still here. Alex Ovechkin continues to climb the NHL’s all-time goals list, and passing Wayne Gretzky certainly seems possible. It helps when you have one of the best centers of the last decade in Nicklas Backstrom setting you up. And when you have players like Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie on the second line to take some of the spotlight off you. And when you have a power-play quarterback like John Carlson, who ranks third among d-men in PP points since 2015-16.

Two notable pieces have departed since that 2018 run. Braden Holtby was a man on a mission in those playoffs, but declining regular-season numbers proved it was time to move on. That decision seemed easy considering top prospect Ilya Samsonov burst onto the scene last season. He was long regarded as a top-prospect and seemed ready to take the starter’s reigns. However, injuries and COVID have held large parts of Samsonov’s season hostage. When he’s played, he’s actually been a bit below-average (.902 save percentage, -3.1 goals saved above average). Rookie Vitek Vanecek has been solid (.908 SV%, -0.2 GSAA) in his stead. But expecting him to be the playoff starter (which seems likely at this point) is a tough ask. Statistically, Craig Anderson (who turns 40 on Game 4) has been their best netminder this season, but I’d be shocked if he started for them these playoffs.

The other missing piece is Jakub Vrana, who was shipped out as part of a costly package to acquire Anthony Mantha from Detroit. Mantha started red-hot in D.C., becoming the first Capital ever to score in their first four games with the club. Since then? 0 goals and 3 assists in 10 games. Mantha is a bruising power forward who also fits the “built for the playoffs” mantra. But they’ll need him to produce offensively as well.

Carlson leads a bit of a rag-tag Washington back-end that performed as you’d expect them to: middle of the pack. The Caps rank 17th in goals per game and 18th in shots allowed per game. Their expected goals share is solid (52.19%, 12th in NHL), and surprisingly, that’s actually buoyed by their defense; the Caps are 10th in the NHL in expected goals against at 5-on-5. Dmitry Orlov is a solid two-way presence on the top pair to balance out the offensive-minded Carlson.

Justin Schultz has put together a bit of a bounce-back season, though much of his value comes from putting up points and quarterbacking the second power-play unit. Brenden Dillon, last year’s big deadline addition, plays a similar role as Orlov does with Carlson. They haven’t performed that well together, but somehow a 48.69% expected goals share at 5-on-5 has turned into a 57.14 actual goals percentage. That’s the result of having the best on-ice shooting percentage of any D-pair with at least 150 5-on-5 minutes together at a whopping 19.70%. The next highest (Tampa’s Mikhail Sergachev and Cal Foote) are at 14.43%. When that number comes down, (and it’s when, not if) they could be in big trouble.

Man, this got dark for a section titled “Washington WINS Because…” huh? So let’s wrap it up with some positivity. Ovechkin and Backstrom are still forces, and the top-six is legit. Carlson is a huge threat on the backend, and the team doesn’t have any dead weight. Solid seasons from pieces like Daniel Sprong and the recently extended Conor Sheary have improved their depth. And the team is no doubt motivated to avenge last season’s butt-kicking from the Islanders. The Caps are a solid 5-on-5 team with a top-five power-play and penalty kill. If they can get quality goaltending, the Capitals are definitely an intimidating team to face, even for an equally battle-tested Boston group.

Boston Wins Because: They’re getting hot at the right time. Since Taylor Hall made his Bruins debut exactly one month ago, the Bruins have the best record in the league (12-4-1). Their goals per game have jumped from 2.70 (20th) to 3.41 (6th) in that span, as well. The Bruins perfection line is once again stellar (though David Pastrnak, who started the year on the shelf, hasn’t been as stellar as he was last year). But Hall has fixed the team’s scoring depth issues, helping David Krejci and offseason addition Craig Smith reach new heights. Both are solid players in their own right, but adding a dynamic talent like Hall to their wing is a game-changer. There’s a reason the Bruins already seem interested in extending Hall, the 2018 league MVP.

With their depth issues seemingly fixed, it’s hard to find many chinks in Boston’s armor. The Bruins have been great at keeping the puck out of their net all year; the club ranks 4th in goals allowed per game and 2nd in shots allowed per game. They have a top-ten power-play and penalty-kill. They also rank top 10 in Corsi (54.91%, 3rd in NHL), expected goals (54.2%, 5th), and save percentage (.912%, 6th). Rookie Jeremy Swayman seems to have taken the backup job from veteran Jaroslav Halak (who’s celebrating a birthday today). But Tuukka Rask should be the undisputed starter here. Rask is seemingly always underappreciated in Boston, despite being 2nd (min. 350 games) in regular-season save percentage (.920) and first (min. 15 games) in playoff save percentage (.928) since 2013. He’s a huge reason for Boston’s success this year and with their current core as a whole.

Players to Watch:

WSH: Evgeny Kuznetsov – Kuznetsov was a rockstar for the Caps during their 2018 Cup run, leading the team with 20 assists and 32 points in 24 games. His possession numbers were absolutely terrible last year, but he’s rebounded in that aspect this year, ranking third among Caps forwards with a 53.71% expected goals share and gaudy 65.38% actual goals share at 5-on-5. But something’s not clicking. Kuznetsov only scored at a 58-point pace, his lowest rate since 2015-16, his second full NHL season. He managed just one power-play goal the entire year. Oh, and he’s on the COVID list along with Samsonov after both were scratched for missing a team meeting. When Kuznetsov’s on, he’s almost impossible to stop. But that only matters if he finds his A-game and gets back into the lineup healthy.

BOS: Charlie McAvoy – Are we still buying the whole “Bruins defense is good” shtick? The jig has to come up eventually, right? The Bruins lost Chara and Torey Krug yet did nothing to replace them until adding Mike Reilly at the deadline for a 3rd. No offense to Reilly (who’s actually having a very good year), but it seemed like the Bruins’ defense was a massive weakness heading into the season, one that could’ve derailed their playoff hopes. Instead, the team is stingier than ever, as mentioned above.

Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelyck are solid defenders, but McAvoy is the only true top-pair talent here. He took the jump from 23:10 to 24:00 in ice-time from last year to this one and has seen sporadic duty on PP1, nearly topping his career-high 32 points in just 51 games. The Bruins will depend on McAvoy to play big minutes in these playoffs, mainly because he’s the only one who has experience doing so. In Boston’s 2019 Finals run, McAvoy averaged three more minutes of ice-time than Carlo and eight more than Grzelcyk. If the Bruins run into a team like Carolina or Colorado with a stacked blue-line in the third or fourth round, McAvoy instantly becomes their most important player. Assuming he isn’t already.

Want another playoff preview of a red and white team facing a team that wears yellow? You’ve got it!

The Pick: Three weeks ago, I probably would’ve picked Washington to win this series. Since then, they’ve raised more questions about their identity than a five-year-old playing Guess Who. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, and Carlson have all missed time in the season’s final weeks due to injuries. Kuznetsov and Samsonov are on the COVID list as I type this. It hasn’t shown in their record (7-2-1 in their last 10), but it kind of feels like the Capitals are limping into the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Bruins have been absolutely flying lately, and it feels like they’re getting hot at the right time. While Mantha is a great player and should thrive in the playoffs, he feels a bit redundant with some of Washington’s other players. On the other hand, (especially) Hall and Reilly have added new elements to Boston’s attack; a dynamic scorer for Krejci to dismantle opponents with, and a solid puck-moving defenseman who can play in the top four. Peter Laviolette is the ex-factor; he’s gone on a Cup run within his three years with his last three teams (Carolina, Philadelphia, and Nashville). But this is just year one for him in Washington, and it feels like the Caps are running out of gas just when they need it most. Boston in 5.

Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I always borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is “stolen”; the predictions themselves are not. I’m calling a Craig Smith OT winner at some point in this series.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5, Score and Venue Adjusted unless otherwise stated and are via Natural Stat Trick