2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Bruins vs. Capitals preview, prediction

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Bruins vs. Capitals first-round playoff preview, prediction originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals will meet in one of the most evenly matched first-round series of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

These teams haven't squared off in the playoffs since 2012 when the Capitals eliminated the defending champion Bruins in overtime of Game 7 at TD Garden. It was actually goaltender Tim Thomas' last game with the B's.

The Capitals finished the season as the No. 2 seed, and thus will enjoy home-ice advantage over the No. 3 seed Bruins in this Best-of-7 series. That said, the Bruins were the hottest team after the trade deadline with a 12-4-1 record through Monday. Boston didn't trail for a single minute in 10 of those 17 games.

Here's a playoff preview for Bruins vs. Capitals. Game 1 is set for Saturday night at 7:15 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network. (All stats via Natural Stat Trick)

Regular Season Head-to-Head

The Bruins have gotten the better of the Capitals in the regular season with a 4-2-2 record. These teams will square off in the regular season finale on Tuesday night in Washington.

Here are some key 5-on-5 stats from their season series:

Bruins 5v5 Stats

Vs. Capitals

Shot Attempt %

51.82

Shots On Net %

53.87

Goals For

18

Goals Against

14

Scoring Chances For

143

Scoring Chances Against

143

Save %

0.916

The Bruins scored 26 goals and allowed 24 in all situations versus the Capitals through seven games. The B's scored three goals on the power play and two shorthanded, while giving up nine Capitals power-play goals.

Key Matchup

The Capitals power play versus the Bruins penalty kill could be the matchup that decides the series.

Boston had the second-best penalty kill in the league with an 86 percent success rate, but Washington enjoyed plenty of success against this unit during the regular season. The Capitals power play scored more goals (nine) and tallied more shot attempts (78), shots on net (51) and scoring chances (48) against the B's penalty kill than any other East Division team.

Overall, Washington had the third-most successful power play in the league at 24.8 percent. The Capitals also have so many quality scorers to put on the ice with the man advantage, including Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Anthony Mantha and T.J. Oshie. Ovechkin is one of the best power-play scorers of all time.

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The Bruins need to stay out of the penalty box as much as possible and excel on the penalty kill if they're going to win this series. Boston's elite penalty kill duo of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand will need to be on their "A" game throughout the series.

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Players to Watch

Taylor Hall, RW, Bruins

Acquiring Hall at the trade deadline completely transformed Boston's offense. They were among the league's worst 5-on-5 teams before Hall arrived, but they've been an elite 5-on-5 offense in his 16 games with Boston. The B's boast a plus-126 edge in shot attempts, a plus-65 advantage in shots on net, a plus-73 lead in scoring chances and a fantastic 15-1 scoring differential with Hall on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

What a Taylor Hall contract extension could look like for the Bruins

Hall scored twice Monday night versus the Islanders, including the game-winner in overtime. His eight goals in 16 games for Boston are six more than he had in 37 games with the Sabres prior to the trade. The former Hart Trophy winner has given Boston valuable scoring depth and dependable two-way play on the second line, which has also rejuvenated veteran center David Krejci. 

The B's need Hall to carry his impressive scoring production into the playoffs for them to make a deep run.

Brad Marchand, LW, Bruins

Marchand led the Bruins in goals (seven) and scoring (13 points) against the Capitals during the regular season. He also paced Boston with 29 goals, 40 assists and 69 points in 53 games overall. Marchand is an elite scorer and Boston's most consistently dangerous offensive player who plays in all situations, including both special teams units. A big series from Marchand would really benefit the Bruins in so many areas.

Charlie McAvoy, D, Bruins

McAvoy was arguably the B's MVP this season and he will face plenty of tough matchups in this series. The Capitals forward he played against the most during the regular season at 5-on-5 was Alex Ovechkin. McAvoy excelled in the matchup, too. The B's had a plus-12 edge in shot attempts, a plus-8 lead in shots on net, a plus-8 advantage in scoring chances and outscored the Capitals 5-0 when McAvoy was matched up against Ovechkin during 5-on-5 action.

Boston will have a strong chance to win the series if McAvoy enjoys similar success versus Ovechkin.

Anthony Mantha, RW, Capitals

The Capitals gave up a lot to acquire Mantha from the Red Wings at the trade deadline for these kinds of playoff moments. Mantha has played well for Washington with eight points (four goals, four assists) in 14 games since the trade, including a goal in one of his two games against Boston. We can expect Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin to show up and produce offensively, but the Caps will need secondary offense to beat a deep and high-scoring B's team. Mantha is one of the players who needs to provide that scoring depth.

Tom Wilson, RW, Capitals

Wilson had a few run-ins with the Bruins this year, including a high hit on B's defenseman Brandon Carlo in March that resulted in a seven-game suspension. Wilson is capable of being an effective power forward who scores goals, brings a lot of physicality to the ice and irritates the heck out of opponents. The Bruins cannot let Wilson bait them into stupid penalties because the last thing Boston needs is Washington getting a lot of power-play action. If Wilson is under control, he could be a really important player for the Capitals in this series. Washington draws a lot of emotion and energy from its physical play, and Wilson drives most of that.

Zdeno Chara, D, Capitals

It's kind of fitting that Chara is playing against the Bruins in his first playoff run with the Capitals.

Chara played most of his 5-on-5 minutes against the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line in the games against the Bruins this season. The B's dominated when Chara was on the ice against their top line, accounting for about 70 percent of the shot attempts and 65 percent of all shots on net. The easiest way to beat the Bruins in the playoffs is to slow down the first line -- something the Lightning did remarkably well in two of the last three years. If Chara sees a lot of action against the Bergeron line, he has to be much better than he was during the regular season for Washington to at least be even in that matchup.

Goalie Breakdown

Tuukka Rask, Bruins: 15-5-2, 2.28 GAA, .913 SV%

Rask is one of the most experienced playoff goalies in the league with 93 career appearances. His .926 playoff save percentage ranks fourth-best among all active goalies with at least 20 postseason games.

The Finnish netminder was limited to 24 games this season because of injuries, so he should be fresh for a deep playoff run. He went 1-0-0 with a 2.59 GAA and a .905 save percentage in three games against the Capitals during the regular season. Rask has struggled versus Washington his entire career, though, posting a 4-11-7 record with a 3.03 GAA and a .894 save percentage.

If Rask struggles and/or isn't 100 percent healthy, it'll be interesting to see if rookie Jeremy Swayman gets any action -- he's officially the backup. Swayman went 7-3-0 with a 1.50 GAA and a .945 save percentage in the regular season, including a 4-2 win at Washington on April 8 when he stopped 31 of 33 shots.

The Bruins have the advantage in talent, depth and experience between the pipes.

Vitek Vanecek, Capitals: 20-10-4, 2.69 GAA, .908 SV%

One of the reasons why the Capitals dominated the Bruins throughout the 2010s decade was Braden Holtby consistently outplayed Rask. But Holtby left Washington in free agency last offseason, and Vanecek is likely the team's No. 1 goalie entering the playoffs. 

He struggled against the B's this season, posting a 4-3-0 record with a 2.86 GAA and a .904 save percentage. Vanecek also has zero games of playoff experience. He's not along in that regard, though. Backup netminder Ilya Samsonov also has zero postseason experience.

Ilya Samsonov could also start for the Caps at some point in the series, and he didn't excel against the B's in 2021, either. He posted a 0-1-0 record with a 3.66 GAA and a .871 save percentage in two games versus Boston.

But with Samsonov currently on the COVID protocols list, the No. 2 goalie for the Caps is veteran Craig Anderson. He beat the Flyers on Saturday night, and it was just his second appearance since Feb. 27. Anderson is no stranger to the playoffs with 46 career games of experience, and he beat the Bruins in a six-game first-round series as the Senators goalie in 2017.

Overall, the Capitals' goaltending is very much unproven at this time of the year. It doesn't mean Vanecek or Samsonov won't rise to the occasion, it's just unknown how they'll handle the increased pressure and expectations.

Odds

Here are the betting lines for Bruins vs. Capitals -- odds provided by our partner, PointsBet Sportsbook.

Bruins to win the series: -130

Capitals to win the series: +105

PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.

Prediction

Bruins in six games.

Boston's advantage in net, improved scoring depth and 5-on-5 production post-trade deadline, plus an elite penalty kill should be enough to tip the scale in its favor. The last playoff series between these teams in 2012 featured seven one-goal games. It wouldn't be surprising if we saw plenty more of those close games in this matchup.