2021 NHL Playoffs: Bruins-Capitals series is way closer than it should be

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Bean: Bruins playing with fire in nail-biter series vs. Caps originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

If you knew the following things were going to happen, where would you guess the Boston Bruins' first-round playoff series against the Washington Capitals would stand?

  • Capitals play three goalies in the first three games.

  • Lars Eller misses a game and a half. 

  • Evgeny Kuznetsov misses the first two games. 

  • Bruins’ only personnel change is on the third pairing. 

  • Tuukka Rask plays well. 

If the answer is “with the Bruins barely holding a 2-1 lead via three nail-biters,” you’re lying. Everyone had the Bruins winning this series, and since we all made our predictions, the Capitals’ situation has worsened. Even if the Bruins don’t have a commanding lead, they should have a convincing one, but they don’t. 

Games 2 and 3 required the B’s to come back in the third period to force overtime. Both contests saw the B’s win on a mental lapse by Washington -- Carl Hagelin changing with the puck in the defensive zone in Game 2 and Ilya Samsonov leaving the puck for Craig Smith in Game 3. 

The Capitals rang iron twice late in the third period of Game 3. It was a very fortunate break that the Bruins, healthy and better on paper, even made it to overtime. 

This is not to discredit the Bruins’ victories; it’s to note how difficult the wins have been and how easily they could have gone the other way. 

Game 3 observations: B's dominate OT; Craig Smith excels

The Capitals have reason to hang their heads (and break sticks and swear) after Game 3, but this series isn’t over. They should feel good about that, because two things could plausibly happen going forward: 

1. The Capitals could continue to get healthier. Given that they’ve hung around in a series they could be losing handily, they can push momentum the other way and take control of the series. 

2. The Bruins can attack the Capitals the way they did in the overtime periods of Game 3. If the B’s generate chances the way they did in the extra sessions, they’ll finally create the separation in the series they should have had by now. 

This series doesn’t need to be this close, but it is. Eller staying out would increase the odds of Boston finally posting something wild like a two-goal victory. Game 3 was the Bergeron line’s best game possession-wise, though the trio didn’t score. The Bergeron line’s possession numbers have increased in every game this series, which makes sense given that Eller left Game 2 and didn’t play Game 3.

Why success of second line bodes well for B's title hopes

Kuznetsov is back after missing the first two games, though. He’s centering Washington’s top line, which was fine in Game 3. If Eller returns for Game 4, the Capitals are suddenly sneaky healthy and the series is one game away from going back to Washington, where Peter Laviolette can control who he puts against Boston’s best players. 

In net, the Capitals just have to hope that Samsonov’s mistake in double overtime doesn’t get to him, because he was otherwise very good Wednesday. The decision to start him given how well Craig Anderson played as Game 2 went on was confusing, but it was validated until that extremely costly moment. 

Assuming Laviolette doesn’t make another change based off one terrible play, the Capitals should at least have an idea of what they have in net now. Given that Samsonov’s the third goalie Washington has played, the situation could be far worse. 

But it isn’t, and we keep waiting for things to sway drastically in Boston’s favor. This is a close series, though. Way closer than it should be, and that’s dangerous.