- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2021

With the way the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins played in their first seven matchups this season, the need for a game-winning goal Tuesday night with under two seconds remaining didn’t come as much of a surprise.

For the most part, the Capitals and Bruins competed in physical contests without much separating the sides. Michael Raffl’s late winner for Washington in the regular season finale Tuesday concluded that eight-game season series, and the sides split those games with four wins apiece.

Tuesday was just the dress rehearsal, though. On Saturday, Washington and Boston meet in the first round of the playoffs for a seven-game series. If the season’s previous meetings are any indication, both sides should be ready for more high-intensity hockey that could come down to a lucky bounce more so than superior skill.

“A physical, tight-checking series, I think,” Raffl said. “It’s two really good hockey teams going at it, but all we can do is prepare ourselves and get ready for Saturday. We can’t change what they’re doing. We’ve got to prepare ourselves and I think we’re ready and hungry to go, so everybody’s very excited.”

Tuesday’s matchup had a slightly different feel to it because the Bruins rested the majority of their starters, including Patrice Bergeron and Taylor Hall. The Capitals were without regulars, too, as they recover from injuries. Winger T.J. Oshie and defenseman John Carlson were out due to lower-body injuries while winger Alex Ovechkin played a full game for the first time since April 22.

There are other questions surrounding center Evgeny Kuznetsov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who remain on the NHL’s coronavirus protocol list. So between the injuries and coronavirus-related absences, the Capitals finished the regular season shorthanded. Coach Peter Laviolette hopes that situation is cleared before Saturday’s puck drop.

“We will assess all that,” Laviolette said. “We will start the process to prepare for the Bruins. Obviously, we have seen them enough. We will make sure we are prepared and we are ready. We will make sure we are rested. We will do our best to keep the injuries in the maintenance area and get them taken care of and hopefully get more guys back on the ice.”

Despite missing several key names Tuesday, the regular season finale included the zest seen between these teams all season.

The Bruins averaged 3.25 goals per game against the Capitals — only the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the East Division, managed more on average. Washington, meanwhile, scored an average of 3.13 on Boston, the most any East Division foe managed against that team this year.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a big battle,” Ovechkin said. “It’s two good teams playing against each other.”

Boston has seen a significant uptick in form the last month, though. Since the NHL’s trade deadline, the Bruins have recorded a .735 point percentage, sixth best in the league. They’ve posted the fourth-best save percentage at 92.63.

And with 47.69 expected goals for, according to Natural Stat Trick, Boston boasts the third-best offense in hockey over the last month — although six games against the Buffalo Sabres, the East Division’s worst team, likely helped that.

But so did the trade deadline acquisition of Hall, who has scored eight goals and added six assists in his first 16 games for Boston. He adds another weapon to an already imposing top six forward grouping.

Washington isn’t far behind statistically, though. The Capitals’ 40.59 expected goals for was the second-highest total in the East Division since April 12. And the Capitals’ already potent power play — which ranks third in the league at 24.8% — is even better against the Bruins. Washington has scored nine power play goals on Boston this season, good for a 30% conversion rate.

What happens when the puck drops Saturday night remains to be seen. Playoff hockey can lead to unexpected bounces that can sway a series, and injury concerns remain for the Capitals. But if the season as a whole is anything to go by, Washington and Boston should produce an evenly matched first round.

“It’s going to be an interesting series, and I think both teams can’t wait for when it’s going to start,” Ovechkin said. “The season is over and now it’s time to play cool hockey.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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