Friday, May 14, 2021
The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: 2021 East Division Semi-final, Washington Capitals vs. Boston Bruins
Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
Washington Capitals (36-15-5)
Boston Bruins (33-16-7)
Then and Now I
Looking at the chart above, “then” looks a lot like “now” for the Caps, even just looking at year-over-year, 56 game results. That the Caps’ performance in 2020-2021 so closely resembles that of the 2019-2020 team should not be all that surprising. Thirteen skaters dressed in both seasons in their entirety, and three others – Richard Panik, Jakub Vrana, and Jonas Siegenthaler – were with the club for most of the season before being traded (although Siegenthaler dressed for only seven games with the Caps this season).
If there is one category where there is some separation between last year and this, it is in the power play, where the Caps are more than four percentage points ahead of last year’s pace through a similar number of games and up 11 ranking spots. That improvement in overall power play efficiency allowed the Caps to improve their special teams index more than four percentage points and three ranking spots.
Then and Now II
In 30 seasons in which the Caps reached the postseason in their history, they faced the Bruins only three times (not counting last season’s pre-playoff round robin play-in):
- 1990: Boston won, 4-0 (Eastern Conference final)
- 1998: Caps won, 4-2 (Eastern Conference semi-final)
- 2012: Caps won, 4-3 (Eastern Conference
- Overall Caps’ record: 2-1 in series, 8-9 in games
If there was a common thread in the three series, it was defense. Boston’s to be specific. They held the Caps to six goals in the four-game sweep in 1990 (1.50 per game) and allowed only 23.5 shots per game. The Bruin penalty killers limited the Caps to two power play goals on 14 opportunities (14.3 percent), although that was a regular season in which the Caps’ power play was far from powerful (17.0 percent/19th of 21 teams). Boston went on to the Stanley Cup final that year, where they lost to the Edmonton Oilers in five games.
The tables were turned the next time the two teams met, in the Eastern Conference semi-final in 1998. The goal differential for the series with narrow, plus-2 over six games for the Caps, but they held Boston to an average of just 2.17 goals per game. Nevertheless, each team recorded a shutout in the series, Washington winning Game 4 by a 3-0 margin, and the Bruins taking Game 5, 4-0. Three of the seven games went to overtime, the teams splitting the first two instances, both of which went to a second overtime. Boston won Game 2, 4-3, in two overtimes, while the Caps took Game 3, 3-2, in double overtime. The third overtime game went to the Caps, 3-2, in the series-clinching Game 6. They would go on to their first Stanley Cup final, where they were swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings.
The most recent meetings of the two teams I the postseason came in 2012, the Bruins entering the opening round series as the defending Stanley Cup champions. It was an unimaginably hard fought series in which all seven games were decided by a single goal, and in keeping with the defense theme that runs through the playoff history between these teams, four of the game were settled with a combined three or fewer goal scored by the two teams. And, overtime was once more a noteworthy feature of the series. Four of the seven games went to extra time, the teams splitting the four overtime results. But it was Washington, evening up the overtime record at two wins apiece, who got the last word, ending the series in overtime of Game 7 on one of the most famous goals in team history.
How Caps of you to notice…
The Caps scored only five third period goals against Boston in eight games this season. Washington did not score fewer third period goals against any other opponent (they also scored only five against the New York Islanders).
How Caps of you to notice II…
In 17 games in the all-time playoff history of these clubs, the Caps scored power play goals in eight of them, going 4-4. When they didn’t score one, they went 4-5. Didn’t seem to matter much, did it?
Yeah, yeah…we’re back here again with an oldie, but a goody… We’re still waiting on the first four-game sweep by the Caps in a seven-game series. The Caps do have a three-game sweep of the Islanders in their history, though, but that was way back in 1986, one of two three-game sweeps in a best-of-five series in team history (the other against Philadelphia in 1984).
The Magic Number
9. The Caps scored nine power play goals in eight games against the Bruins this season. The Caps did not score more power play goals against any other opponent, and the Bruins did not allow more power play goals against any other opponent. Oddly enough, or “how very Caps of you to notice,” the Caps were just 2-3-0 in the five games in which they scored at least one power play goal (1-2 when they scored more than one) and 2-1-0 when they were shut out on the man advantage.
The Cast of Skaters
Balance, balance, balance. No, Alex Ovechkin did not extend his string of 30-goal seasons to start his career (the streak ends at 15 seasons, tied with Mike Gartner for most all-time). But the Caps did have nine players out of 29 who skated for the team this year with double-digits in goals scored. Twenty four had points, including 24 of 25 who appeared in at least five games (Jonas Siegenthaler, traded at the trading deadline, was the lone skater in that group without a point).
Six players averaged at least 0.70 points per game (a 57-point pace per 82 games) – Nicklas Backstrom (0.96), Alex Ovechkin (0.93), John Carlson (0.85), T.J. Oshie (0.81), Evgeny Kuznetsov (0.71), and Tom Wilson (0.70). Thirteen players shared in the 33 game-winning goals for the Caps. Balance, balance, balance.
The balance extended to the season series against Boston. In the eight game season series, 26 skaters dressed for the Caps against the B’s. Of that group, 16 recorded goals (including the since departed Jakub Vrana and Richard Panik), and 22 recorded at least one point (including Vrana and Panik). When you consider that the four skaters who did not record a point in the eight-game series dressed for a combined five games against Boston (Michael Sgarbossa was the only one appearing in two games).
The fact about the Bruins that jumps off the page is numbers – the sheer volume. Boston employed 33 skaters against the Caps this season; they dressed 36 against all opponents for the season. Only John Moore, Ondrej Kase, and Par Lindholm (a combined nine games played for Boston) did not dress against the Caps. The volume of skaters employed masks what balance Boston had in scoring against the Caps. While their goal scoring balance did not rival Washington’s (12 had goals; Brad Marchand’s seven being more than a quarter of the total of 26 goals), they did have 21 skaters recording at least one point. One point of some concern is the contributions of the defense. Boston used 12 defensemen against the Caps this season, only Connor Clifton dressing for all eight games. Seven blueliners had points. But the Bruins got goals from only three – Charlei McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and Jeremy Lauzon with one apiece.
Working with a net
Perhaps as much as any team in the postseason, the Capitals’ situation in goal is unsettled. The impolite term would be “a mess.” If goaltender is the most important position on the ice, an idea magnified in the playoffs, it is the biggest concern the Caps have. Vitek Vanecek had a fine rookie season. He was among the top performers of his rookie class, highly ranked in many statistical categories: tied for first in games played (37), first in wins (21), sixth in goals against average (2.69, out of 12 rookies playing in at 10 games), tied for third in shutouts (two). But there is the save percentage. Vanecek finished eighth of 12 goalies playing in at least ten games, posting a .908 mark, and he was seventh save percentage at even strength in that group (.915).
Vanecek was slightly below his overall performance in seven games against Boston this season, going 4-3-0, .286, .905, and his game-by-game performance was wildly uneven. Overall, Vanecek’s home road splits were troubling. He was, as one might expect, effective at home – 2-1-0, 2.68, .920. But the difference in his road record – 2-2-0, 3.00, .889 – was significant and worrisome. Not that many goalies were successful against the Bruins in Boston – only seven of 16 goalies to dress against the Bruins on the road posted save percentages over .900, but it will bear watching if Vanecek gets the nod in goal for the Caps.
And then there is Vanecek’s game-to-game performance against Boston. In seven appearances against the Bruins this season, he allowed a single goal three times. On the other hand, he allowed four or more goals three times as well.
As for Ilya Samsonov, he has not seen game action since May 1st, has not won a game since April 24th, and has not posted a save percentage over .900 in a game since shutting out the New York Islanders on 26 shots in a 1-0 Gimmick (that’s a “shootout” for you new readers) win. Since then, he (with Evgeny Kuznetsov) were suspended for disciplinary reasons for one game, and then he and Kuznetsov were placed on the COVID protocol list. Head coach Peter Laviolette said at the time of the suspension that “Right now, we’re working through things inside the room…We’ve got to work together inside here. There’s gotta be rules. There’s gotta be boundaries. We got expectations set and you need to be accountable to that.” At the risk of jumping to conclusions, since we are not privy to all that goes on behind the locker room door, it is not a good situation in which a goalie, who started the season third on the depth chart, ends up the default choice because the other goaltender who was supposed to be the number one goalie this season has made a hash of his season when things started to matter more.
On the other side, things are settled. It will be Tuukka Rask for Boston, unless he reverts to his early career numbers against the Caps (2-11-5, 3.10, .889, two shutouts in his first 19 career appearances against the Caps through 2018-2019). Rask finished 15-5-2, 2.28, .913, with two shutouts this season, but after missing all but 20 minutes of play over more than a month to what was thought to be a back injury, Rask is 7-1-0, 2.07, .923, with two shutouts. Over that span, since April 25th, he is tied for second among all goalies in wins (seven), eighth of 41 goalies logging at least 250 minutes in goals against average (2.07), 12th in save percentage among goalies in that group (.923), and tied for second in shutouts (two). He is playoff-ready.
Who’s Hot ‘n’ Not?
For the Capitals over the last ten games of the regular season…
- HOT -- Daniel Sprong: 6-0-6 (tied for team lead in goals), plus-1, 28.6 shooting percentage, three game-winning goals
- HOT -- T.J. Oshie: 6-0-6 (tied for team lead in goals), even, 31.6 shooting percentage, three power play goals (only power play goals for Caps over that span)
- HOT -- Dmitry Orlov: 1-6-7 (team leader among defensemen in points over that span), plus-7 (best among all skaters), 22:02 per game in ice time
- HOT -- Brenden Dillon: 36 credited hits (leads team over that span), 11 blocked shots (tied for team lead), plus-5 even strength on ice goal differential (second on team)
- NOT – Alex Ovechkin: 0-0-0, even, three games played (seven missed to injury), 12:19 in average ice time
- NOT – Zdeno Chara: 0-1-1, minus-3, 17 penalty minutes, minus-3 even strength goal on ice goal differential (tied for worst on team)
- NOT – John Carlson: 0-2-2, plus-2, four games missed to injury, no power play points
- NOT – Anthony Mantha 0-3-3, plus-1, no goals since he scored one in each of his first four games as a Capital
For the Bruins over the last ten games of the regular season…
- HOT – Taylor Hall: 5-3-8, plus-9; tied for team in goals over that span, second in plus-minus
- HOT -- David Krejci: 2-12-14 (leads team in points over that span), plus-10 (leads team), four power play points (leads team)
- HOT – Brad Marchand: 4-8-12, plus-3, 32 shots on goal (leads team over that span)
- HOT – Charlie McAvoy: 1-4-5, plus-7, 22:47 in ice time per game (leads team over that span), 12 blocked shots (tied for second on team), plus-1 takeaway-to-giveaway differential
- NOT -- Jeremy Lauzon: 0-1-1, minus-2
- NOT – Connor Clifton: 0-0-0, plus-4 (in six games), minus-3 in net penalties (drawn less taken, worst on team over that span), minus-1.72 penalties per 60 minutes (only Bruin worse than minus-1.00)
- NOT – Curtis Lazar: 1-1-2, minus-2, 43.2 faceoff percentage (worst of four Bruins over that span taking 50 or more draws)
- NOT -- Kevan Miller: 0-1-1, even
Looks at Rooks
The Caps, consistent with being a veteran team, had a small footprint of rookie contributions this season among the skaters. Brian Pinho, Garrett Pilon, and Connor McMichael combined to appear in four games (Pilon dressed for two contests). None of the recorded a point, and they had a combined four shots on goal (Pinho had three). Only McMichael was hit with a penalty (one minor infraction). They combined for just under 36 minutes played for the season. As for goalies, the performance of Vitek Vanecek is described above.
Boston’s contributions from rookies are more significant and, frankly, more surprising for a club perennially thought of as a more veteran group. Eight rookie skaters dressed for the Bruins, five forwards (Zach Senyshyn, Trent Frederic, Jack Studnicka (now how is that for a hockey name?), Oskar Steen, and Cameron Hughes) and three defensemen (Jakub Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen, and Jack Ahcan). Frederic and Zboril led the rookies in games played (42), while Studnicka added another 20 among those playing in more than 10 games. Frederic led the rookies in goals (four), while Zboril led them in points (0-9-9). None of the rookies had a plus rating this season, Zboril the only one able to climb to even. Frederic was far and away the leader in penalty minutes (65, which also led the team as a whole) and was worst in plus-minus rating among the rookies (minus-8). He also happened to be the only Boston rookie to contribute any game-winning goals (three, tied for third among all skaters) and was the only Bruin rookie to post a goal against the Caps this season.
The B’s dressed two rookie goalies this season – Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar. Neither is likely to get any action in this series, but their regular season performance is worth noting for their being at opposite ends of the performance spectrum. Swayman was 7-3-0, 1.50 (best among all rookies playing in more than one game), .945 also best among rookies playing in at least one game), with two shutouts (tied for third among 27 rookie goaltenders this season). At the other end, Vladar was 2-2-1, 3.40, .886 in five games.
The Caps finished third overall in power play efficiency in the regular season (24.8 percent), but that is a deceptive number. First, their “net” power play percentage, accounting for power play goals scored and shorthanded goals allowed – was just 19.6 percent, ninth in the league. And, their power play goal differential (goals scored less shorthanded goals allowed) of plus-30 ranked just 13th. That is a product of their league most eight shorthanded goals allowed.
Then there is the home-road split. Washington led the league in home ice power play efficiency (30.6 percent), but their road power play efficiency of 19.8 percent ranked just 15th. The Caps were not particular about where they allowed shorthanded goals, allowing four at Capital One Arena (tied for most in the league) and four on the road (tied for most in the league).
The Caps’ power play was also up and down generally over the course of the season:
- January (nine games): 44.4 percent/1st in the league
- February (12 games): 21.6 percent/13th
- March (14 games): 15.2 percent/23rd
- April (15 games): 31.3 percent/3rd
- May (six games): 11.8 percent/18th
Something to keep in mind with the Caps’ power play is that they had 153 power play opportunities overall, tied for ninth-fewest in the league (2.73 per game). Only 72 man advantage chances this season came on home ice where their 2.57 opportunities per game ranked tied for sixth-worst in the league. They were very efficient at home, but ineffective to a degree, given their limited chances to unleash that fury.
At the player level, it is odd to see Alex Ovechkin not leading the team in power play goals. That honor went to T.J. Oshie (13, to Ovechkin’s nine). A bit stranger is Ovechkin ranking third in power play goals per 60 minutes. He finished third (2.85), behind Oshie (4.78) and Tom Wilson (3.07) among Caps with more than one power play goal.
Unsurprisingly, Nicklas Backstrom led the team in power play points (22) and power play assists (17). It was his power play goal total that was more surprising. He had five in 55 games (0.09 per game), a considerable improvement over last season (two in 61 games/.03 per game), and more than his career average (0.08 per game).
The disappointment in this area was Evgeny Kuznetsov, who went just 1-7-8 in 41 games. One power play goal was his lowest output since he failed to record one in 17 games in his first NHL season in 2013-2014. The seven assists with a man advantage continues a disturbing trend of under-production. He has only 13 power play assists in 104 games over the last two seasons after posting 15 in 76 games in 2018-2019 and 23 (career high) in 2017-2018.
Among the defensemen, John Carlson deserves mention. He did have three power play goals in 52 games, a total for a season that he exceeded only once in the previous six seasons (four in 2017-2018). It was his assist total that was down, to 12, which was his lowest total since he also had 12 in 82 games in 2014-2015.
The first power play gets the lion share of the ice time, so it is unsurprising that it was on ice for such a share of shorthanded goals against, but this season was rather grisly in this regard. Remember, the Caps allowed eight shorthanded goals against, most in the league. Alex Ovechkin was on ice for seven of them, more than 28 other teams. Oshie, Backstrom, and Carlson were on ice for six (more than 24 other teams), and Kuznetsov was on ice for five (more than 20 other teams).
The penalty kill might not get enough credit for its performance this season. Their 84.0 percent penalty kill overall ranked fifth in the league, an improvement over last season (82.6 percent/sixth). This year’s penalty kill was not overburdened in terms of shorthanded situations faced (2.89 per game/17th-most in the league). What it was not was much of a threat to score shorthanded. Only three teams had fewer shorthanded goals than the two the Caps recorded (Colorado and Philadelphia with one apiece, and Detroit, who did not record one).
The Caps could stand to be a bit stingier on the penalty kill on home ice, where their 83.1 percent overall mark ranked eighth, and their 84.3 percent net penalty kill ranked 11th. Those numbers looked better on the road where the Caps ranked seventh in penalty kill overall (84.8 percent) and eighth in net penalty kill (86.1 percent).
Remember that the Caps allowed 26 power play goals against this season. Four Caps were on ice for more than ten apiece – Zdeno Chara (18), Carl Hagelin (15), Nick Jensen (13), and Nic Dowd (11). Given that these are the only four Capitals currently with the club who averaged more than 2:00 in power play ice time per game, these are not surprising results, but improving them would go a long way to securing a series win for the Caps.
As for the Bruins, their power play was good overall (21.8 percent/10th in the league), but not great. It was better at home (25.0 percent/fifth) than on the road (18.4 percent/17th), as might be expected. But this is a team that surprisingly, given a reputation for being a veteran team that takes care of business, allowed six shorthanded goals overall, fourth-most in the league. And like the Caps, they were not choosy about where to be generous – three allowed at home and three on the road.
The Bruins had good scoring balance on their power play, 11 skaters posting at least one goal over the course of the season. Patrice Bergeron led the group with seven, although David Pastrnak was right there with six in eight fewer games (48 to 54 for Bergeron). Brad Marchand was the set-up man in charge with 14 power play assists, ten of them primary assists, which also led the team. David Krejci was second in both categories (13 power play assists overall, seven of them primary assists).
The penalty kill, or more specifically the Bruins’ propensity to fall into shorthanded situations is something the Cap might be able to exploit. Boston averaged 3.18 shorthanded situations faced per game this season, fourth-most in the league. Although the Bruins’ penalty kill was highly efficient (86.0 percent overall (86.0 percent), that is a lot of burden to be placed upon it.
Behind the Bench
Peter Laviolette is tied for fourth among active coaches in playoff games coached (143, with the Islanders’ Barry Trotz). His 75 wins in the postseason rank fourth among the active coaches, and his .524 winning percentage ranks sixth among active coaches with at least 100 games coaching in the postseason. Among the four teams for whom he coached prior to his arrival in Washington, he was under .500 in win-loss record in the playoffs with only one team, and that was with only 12 games for the Islanders (4-8/.333). He is a three-time conference champion head coach in 12 seasons going to the playoffs, including and season in which he piloted the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup (2005-2006). Looking at the recent history of Caps coaches, you might say that Laviolette is something between the uber-discipline of a Barry Trotz-coached team and whatever it was that the Caps were doing under Todd Reirden. The defense does not appear as structured as a Trotz team, at least not in an obvious sense, but it is not generally a leaky team as much as it suffers some growing pains from the young goaltenders that the Caps employ. The offense has not suffered under Laviolette, who has allowed the talent to flourish, reflected in the Caps’ overall fine scoring offense and power play numbers. He is not going to be beaten in this series by a lack of playoff-tested experience.
On the other bench, many fans’ memories of Bruce Cassidy are of his stay with the Caps, who went 47-47-9 in the regular season and 2-4-0 in the playoffs in his first NHL head coaching assignment, and might have been best known for his benching Calle Johansson in the playoffs in Johansson’s last game with the Capitals, imaginative use of napkins, and a lack of professionalism. The intervening years appear to have matured Cassidy and made him a better coach. He now ranks seventh all-time in regular season games coached in Bruins history (315) and tied with Don Cherry for third-most games in the playoffs (55). His 27 postseason wins ranks fourth (he can tie Cherry for third with a win in this series over the Caps). Those 27 postseason wins also have the Bruins fourth in postseason wins since he arrived in 2016-2017, two behind the top-ranked Tampa Bay Lightning (29, including round-robin play-in games last season). He has overseen a club that is effective in the offensive end in the postseason (2.95 goals per game/sixth-best in the league since he came into the league) and stingy in their own end (2.58 goals allowed per game/sixth). His has been the best power play in the playoffs (29.2 percent) and good on the penalty kill (82.6 percent/11th). He turned around a struggling team (26-23-6 under Claude Julien when he arrived in 2016-2017, and then going 18-8-1), and he has maintained a constantly effective level of play. He does not have the depth of experience Laviolette has, but his resume with Boston is that of an effective coach nonetheless.
The Caps will in if…
One, they can get and stay healthy and whole. Late season injuries and absences by Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Ilya Samsonov, T.J. Oshie, not to mention the season-long absences of Michal Kempny and Henrik Lundqvist, plus others nicked up her and there, bit into the late game win-loss performance of the Caps. Washington showed an ability to grind out games, but this is a different kettle of fish. And Boston knows how to catch and cook fish.
Two, they get superior performances from Evgeny Kuznetsov and Anthony Mantha. Their late season production has been disappointing for different reasons. Kuznetsov has been efficient when he has been in the lineup, but he missed 15 of 56 games this season for a variety of reasons. And he just hasn’t taken that next step toward elite status since his career year in 2017-2018. He ha the talent to be a 27-56-83 player on a consistent basis, but he has not even reclaimed that level of performance. And, he has only four goals and 11 points in 15 playoff games (with a minus-5 rating) since going 12-20-32, plus-12 in 24 games in the 2018 Stanley Cup-winning postseason for the Caps. As for Mantha, is his 0-3-3, plus-1, scoring line merely a “slump” since his scoring goals in each of his first four games with the Caps, or is it an indicator of what frustrated the Detroit Red Wings to making him available in a trade at this season’s deadline?
Three, Vitek Vanecek finds his inner Cam Ward. Vanecek won a lot of games for a rookie, his 21 wins ranking third all-time in Caps history among rookie goalies. But his underlying numbers (2.69 GAA, .908 save percentage) suggest he was more often a passenger than a goalie who could steal a game. And, he goes into the postseason with a 4-3-1, 3.17, .886, with one shutout in his last eight regular season appearances. But contemplate the experience of Cam Ward as a rookie in 2005-2006. He had a nice regular season win-loss record (14-8-2), but his underlying numbers (3.68/.882) were, well…not so nice. And then came the playoffs. Taking over for an ineffective Martin Gerber (1-1, 3.52, .886), he finished the playoffs 15-8/2.14/.920, with two shutouts. His GAA was second among all goalies playing in more than one game, his save percentage was sixth in that group, and he skated off with the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the postseason. Vanecek doesn’t have to be Smythe-level good for the Caps to win this series (although it would be nice), but he has to be more consistent and more effective than he was coming into this postseason. And no, we do not anticipate Ilya Samsonov or Craig Anderson getting minutes unless Vanecek forgets entirely how to play the position, or he is otherwise unable to play. This is not how the goaltending part in the script read when the season started, but it is what it is.
The Bruins will win if…
One, they just keep doing what they have been doing since April 1st. In 24 games since then, Boston was 15-7-2, third-most wins and ninth-best points percentage (.667). They have been good in the ends over that period, ranking eighth in scoring offense (3.29 goals per game) and seventh in scoring defense (2.46 goals allowed per game). Their shots/shot allowed differential has been superb (plus-7.4 per game), and their shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 has been excellent (55.0/fourth).
Two, Tuukka Rask is the goalie who showed up in the last six weeks, not the goalie who couldn’t beat the Caps in his earlier career. As noted above, Rask had his early problems with the Caps (2-11-5, 3.10, .889, two shutouts in his first 19 career appearances against the Caps through 2018-2019), but he is 2-0-2, 2.70, .913 since then. And, he is 7-1-0, 2.07, .923, with two shutouts since returning from injury last month. If it is that Rask who shows up, the Caps have their work cut out for them.
The “Perfection Line,” a tribute to hubris by Bruins Nation, is a “more perfect union” (like how we folded some American history into this? Hey, read the Preamble to the Constitution). Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak, finished one-two-three, respectively, in goals scored, combining for 72 of the 164 goals scored by the Bruins this season (43.9 percent), and that is with Pastrnak sitting out eight games to injury (hip injury, COVID protocol).
In the end…
All the important indicators for this series are colored black and gold, not red, white and blue. Boston should win this series, and frankly, they should do it in less than seven games. What the Caps have shown this year, especially late in the season, is a certain resilience that has allowed them to grind out games. It is that, contingent upon them being generally healthy, which will propel them into what could be series against another team that wears black and gold.
Caps in seven