Round-robin preview: Could this be the year the Bruins land knockout punch against Braden Holtby, Capitals?

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The threat of elimination might not hover over the Bruins until the NHL’s augmented playoff format is whittled down to 16 teams, but that doesn’t mean that Boston plans on simply shaking the rust off during the league’s scheduled round-robin tournament. 

There’s still plenty to play for during the competition — which features the top four teams in each conference and will be held during the “play-in” round featuring 16 other clubs.

Even though some of the advantages of home ice will be negated due to neutral-site venues this year, the seeding at stake for these four teams in the round robin still holds significant sway — both in terms of determining last change and the perk of reseeding taking place after each playoff round this summer. 

As such, the onus should be on the Bruins to fight tooth and nail to hold on to their No. 1 seed, given that Boston could make it all the way to the conference finals before having to square off against a club like the Lightning or Capitals in the best-of-seven series.

But it won’t come easy for the B’s, given that they need to sit atop the standings against the likes of Tampa, Washington and Philadelphia if they want to put themselves in the best possible position for a deep Cup run. 

As the Bruins looking to get Phase 2 underway in the coming days, here’s an early preview of how the Bruins match up against the rest of the field in the round-robin tournament. Let’s continue this series with a look at another team that has always been a thorn in the side of the Bruins — the Capitals: 

Washington Capitals

Record: 41-20-8 (90 points — 1st in Metropolitan Division)

Team Stats: 

Goals Per Game: 3.42 (2nd in NHL)

Goals Against Per Game: 3.07 (18th in NHL)

Power-play Percentage: 19.4 (17th in NHL)

Penalty Kill: 82.6% (6th in NHL)

Bruins record against Capitals this season: 1-1-1

Nov. 16, 2019: Capitals beat Bruins, 3-2 (SO)

Despite skating without Patrice Bergeron, Jake DeBrusk and Torey Krug, the Bruins held their own against a Caps club in the midst of a 13-game point streak, holding a 2-1 lead all the way through the final minute of regulation. 

However, the Caps eventually buried the equalizer with 58 seconds left in the third — with a 6v5 strike from T.J. Oshie sending Boston into another overtime period. While Charlie Coyle beat Braden Holtby in one round of the shootout, the Capitals eventually prevailed to earn the 3-2 shootout victory. 

Despite coming up short in the shootout, Jaroslav Halak was a force in net for Boston — posting 42 saves and stopping nine of the 11 high-danger shots that came his way. Charlie McAvoy also impressed in the loss, logging 23:23 of ice time while chipping in two assists.

Dec. 11, 2019: Capitals beat Bruins, 3-2

Despite losing 15 of their last 16 matchups against the Caps, the Bruins surged out of the gate at Capital One Arena — with David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron both beating Holtby within the first 16 minutes. 

Unfortunately, an offside review wiped out Bergeron’s tally, while a weak interference call against Chris Wagner led to a power-play strike from Oshie. Ultimately, a third-period strike from John Carlson proved to be the difference maker, with the Caps’ PK clamping down on a Bruins power play that went 0-for-5 on the night.

Dec. 23, 2019: Bruins beat the Capitals, 7-3

The Bruins finally managed to get over the hump against Washington in their final matchup of the regular season — posting their first home victory over the Caps since March 6, 2014.

Boston delivered the knockout punch early on the night, chasing Holtby from the game after relinquishing four goals on 11 B’s shots. Still, even with the lopsided score, this was far from a runaway contest — as Washington outshot Boston, 42-17, and both clubs combined for 36 penalty minutes in a game that might have given us our first look at what to expect in an extended playoff bout between these teams.

Stanley Cup Odds (Via William Hill): 8-1 Favorites

Injured Players:

None of Note

The Capitals might be one of the oldest clubs in the NHL with a whopping 13 players aged 29 or over, but all things considered, Washington’s age hasn’t exactly caught up to them when it comes to the injury report. While stars like Dougie Hamilton and Steven Stamkos are all expected to be cleared once the postseason gets underway, the Capitals have been relatively healthy throughout the season — and aren’t expected to regain any key cogs back as a result of this extended break. 

Still, as one of the many clubs that opted to be buyers at the deadline, the Capitals are going to be on a shortened timeline when it comes to finding the best fit for both winger Ilya Kovalchuk and defenseman Brenden Dillon in the lineup. 

Three Capitals To Watch:

Braden Holtby, Goalie: As is the case with just about every playoff matchup, the play of the man between the pipes is going to hold the ultimate determinant when it comes to assessing a team’s shot of punching their ticket to the next round. That especially holds true when it comes to any matchup between the Bruins and Capitals — given that Holtby has often been the bane of Boston’s existence ever since he arrived in the league. 

Even after the B’s chased him from the game in their last meeting back in December, Holtby has straight-up stolen Boston’s lunch money time and time again over the years — posting a record of 18-4-0 with an absurd .939 save percentage, 1.98 goals-against average and four shutouts over 22 games against the Black and Gold. 

Granted, the 30-year-old netminder was much more mortal this season against Bruce Cassidy’s club, posting a save percentage of .879 despite earning the victory in two of those three tilts. 

Those rather ugly numbers are far from an outlier in another solid season for Holtby, however, as the case could be made that the Caps goalie has been Washington’s greatest weakness so far this season.

Granted, the defense in front of him isn’t much to write home about, but Holtby’s overall numbers have to be a cause for concern — closing out the regular season with a .897 save percentage and 3.11 goals-against average. 

The underlying numbers don’t alleviate many concerns about Holtby’s performance this season. Among the 29 goalies that have logged at least 2,050 minutes of ice time this year, Holtby is 28th in goals saved above expectation at -22.74 and 28th in save percentage on high-danger shots (.780). 

It makes for an interesting conundrum for the Capitals this postseason, especially with the promising play of backup Ilya Samsonov. If the Capitals are going to persevere over the Bruins — either in the round-robin tournament or later in the postseason —   Holtby is almost certainly going to play a big role in said conquest. But if the Capitals crumble, there also stands a good chance that Holtby's drop in production is the primary culprit. This very well could be the year Boston gives a goalie that has brought them so much misery a taste of his own medicine.

John Carlson, Defenseman: A quick look at the stat book would validate the case Carlson has built for himself as a legitimate Norris Trophy contender this season.

Along with his regular heavy workload as a top-pairing defenseman (24:38 average TOI), the Natick native has been an absolute juggernaut in the O-zone for the Capitals, leading the club with 75 points (15 goals, 60 assists) over 69 games. Carlson's 1.09 points per game was the highest total for a defenseman since Ray Bourque, Al MacInnis and Sergei Zubov all reached similar scoring marks during the 1993-94 season.

While Boston will already be preoccupied with accounting for some of Washington's big guns up front, Carlson promises to be the fly in the ointment on the blue line — serving as quarterback of the Caps' power play while also jumping up into the play during 5v5 stretches. But, much like Holtby, the Bruins could turn the tide against Carlson in this series — primarily due to the star blueliner's struggles within his own zone.

For as much as Carlson deserves plenty of praise as an offensive catalyst, his lackluster play down the other end of the ice has created a major weakness for a Capitals team already hampered by a slumping goalie, with his -3.4 goals against average raising quite a few eyebrows. After years of battling a high-powered Maple Leafs offense in the postseason, the Bruins might have themselves a similar opponent in the Capitals — a team more than capable of piling on goals, but also prone to relinquishing them down the other end of the ice.

Lars Eller, Center: 

The book has been out for quite some time on Washington's dynamic top-six unit — which features plenty of scoring (Alex Ovechkin), size (Tom Wilson), playmaking (Nicklas Backstrom) and skill (Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie). But the don't overlook what is a very deep bottom-six grouping up front for the Caps, especially with Eller driving a new-look third line next to Kovalchuk and Carl Hagelin.

As Boston can attest to last season, the emergence of the Heinen-Coyle-Johansson line gave the B's a clear mismatch against many clubs during the 2019 Cup Final — relieving some of the pressure put upon Patrice Bergeron's line to shoulder most of the scoring. This Washington third line could excel in a similar role this summer, with Eller already a key piece of the Caps success thanks to his versatility.

Already one of Todd Reirden's most trusted penalty killers, Eller was also on pace for a career-high 19 goals before the COVID-19 stoppage, and was starting to gel with Kovalchuk (three points in three games) shortly after the veteran winger was acquired back in February. If those two can get going, Boston might be kicking themselves even more after passing on the Russian product when he was on the trade block.

Even if Eller and that line are held in check this postseason, the Danish import will be sure to get under the skin of many opposing skaters this summer. Brad Marchand can back up those claims.

Stats and graphs via Natural Stat Trick and Sean Tierney.