(3) Intelligent Hockey: Bruins, Capitals set to drop puck on NHL playoffs

Movie sequels, television series finales, relationships.

Life is full of letdowns, as few things consistently deliver beyond expectations. But friends, the NHL playoffs are one of them, and they are here.
Rejoice! We made it.

The Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals opening the postseason on Saturday is everything a hockey zealot could wish for. Both rosters overflow with skill and will intersperse physicality in all three zones. A moody, churlish tone is sure to overlay the series within minutes of action.

With the odds starting as a pick’em, the game has been labeled a coin toss. But uncertainty can be advantageous, because bettors will profit from a correct reading of the series.

Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals Saturday, May 15 – 7:15 p.m. ET

Hero or pariah

Taylor Hall’s career has whipsawed between extremes. In Boston, though, he has found a better archetype, which is that of the ancillary player. No longer hogging the spotlight, Hall has become steady, and the Bruins are flourishing as a result.

Since Hall joined the team on April 13, and through May 10 – his last game of the season – the Bruins at five-on-five ranked first in expected goals and second in high-danger chances. Before Hall joined the Bruins, they ranked third worst in expected goals created per 60 minutes at five-on-five; after he came aboard, the squad ranks best in the NHL. Boston was starved for secondary scoring and harmony in its top-six forward group and Hall has ushered in that balance.

Before slamming down your fist and announcing your fealty to Boston, it is worth underlining that the Capitals have been killing in these same stats in the same time frame.
As mentioned, the Bruins rank second in high-danger chances. Well, the Capitals rank first. In metrics where Washington trails Boston, it is by the slimmest of margins. At five-on-five, the two teams have similarly excelled since the trade deadline. Even in special teams, both are at the top of the league.

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So, what about goaltending?

Clearly, there the Bruins must have a distinct advantage. Tuukka Rask is a Vezina Trophy winner, while Washington’s Vitek Vanecek is a rookie. But look closer and an edge for Boston looks murkier. For example, in the time since Hall played his first game, Rask has played nine games and posted a -2.64 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). Eek! That is below-average play. Granted, Vanecek has been worse in that same stretch, registering a -6.91 GSAx.

When examining both goaltenders in their past five starts the margin becomes even thinner, with Rask submitting a -2.55 and Vanecek a -2.3 GSAx. Vanecek looks more capable of sinking his team with a bad effort, but neither goaltender is playing well of late.

With Washington at home, coach Peter Laviolette will have agency to determine his preferred matchups and aesthetic on Saturday. We know that Laviolette is likely to deploy his energy players against the Bruins’ top two lines, which will free up the Capitals’ high-skill forwards.

With the Bruins’ dominance in the faceoff dot, Laviolette having last change is paramount. When the Bruins run their faceoff plays, the Capitals will have their desired personnel on the ice, so gaining separation and chances off draws could be trickier for Boston.

Time and space are always early casualties of playoff hockey. Back pressure will be demanded by both coaches, and with tighter gaps on entries, expect lots of forechecking and cycling. This makes defensive-zone play a flash point in this series and also offers a useful contrast in styles between the two squads.

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A word on D-fence.

The Capitals play man-on-man defence, and when opponents ran interchanges against Washington during the regular season, an opposing player could get lost when Washington switched. The Bruins will surely have their defencemen activating every chance they get. (Hello, Charlie McAvoy.) The Patrice Bergeron line also loves to orchestrate give-and-gos, and if Washington is slow to adjust, that could open up big lanes for the Bruins’ top line when the puck is returned to the original possessor.

In the Boston zone, the Bruins run a hybrid model, a man-on-man that transforms into a zone. Boston will unhitch from an opposing skater once he reaches a certain area of the defensive zone, so if Washington can ferry the puck into those trigger points, it can open up soft spots in the Bruins’ end.
Playmakers like Nicklas Backstrom are especially capable of short-circuiting Boston in this capacity. Washington likes to attempt those wing-to-wing seam passes, so Boston needs to prevent the Capitals’ puck-carriers from getting too comfortable when they seek out those dead spots.

The Bruins will be desperate to hem the Capitals in their own end in order to avoid pressure on their vulnerable back end. But that eagerness from the Bruins to stay on the attack can sometimes result in a Boston defenceman taking an overly aggressive pinch to try to swat the puck back into the offensive zone. If the Capitals can maneuver the puck past the Bruins defender’s body, it puts pressure on a Boston forward to cover the weak side as his defensive partner orients his gravity toward the middle. Transition chances for Washington can be found this way.

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Steven Job

Wrapping up.

More than we would like to admit, luck will play a disproportionate role in this game’s result. Lead changes and how each team responds to success and adversity are worth contemplating. During the regular season, the Bruins never lost a game when they were leading after the first period. In contrast, the Capitals are tied in first for the most losses after ending the second frame with a lead. Once Washington sinks into its layered neutral zone defensive vise, the game is not necessarily a fait accompli. The Bruins play well when they are ahead, and they are playing an opponent who has shown a capacity to collapse.

Reverse engineering a Bruins’ victory is not a hard exercise. The postgame narratives practically write themselves. The Capitals are too banged up. Vanecek is a weak spot. The Bruins are gangbusters with Hall and are peaking at the right time.
But without a crystal ball, I like the Capitals’ depth more. Should the Capitals lose Game 1 at home, it portends a team that could quickly fold, just like last playoffs.

But I think Washington is different under Laviolette.

Pick: Capitals over 2