The Washington Capitals have drawn the Boston Bruins as their opponents in first round of the playoffs. I’m sure there will be a lot of predictions and projections — plus one very opinionated cointoss — coming in the next few days, but I want to start by saying that I think this is a very tough matchup.
The Caps have basically drawn the short straw of the division. Regardless of their position in the standings, the 2021 Boston Bruins are a very good team.
Below, using Natural Stat Trick’s data, are all playoff teams since the trade deadline.
Ranked by shot-attempt percentage (SA%) or expected-goals percentage (xGF%), Boston has been the best team in the league since the middle of April.
The Bruins had not been this fearsome all season; this is all a recent development. Below is a line graph showing what percentage of shot attempts each team controlled during five-on-five play through the season. Boston spikes upwards at the deadline.
Boston’s big deadline acquisition was forward Taylor Hall, who scored two goals for Buffalo in 37 games — and then eight goals for Boston in just 16 games. Sharing time with Craig Smith and David Krejci, Hall has positively owned the ice. The images below are Hockey Viz heatmaps, showing where shots are being taken for Boston (left side) and against Boston (right side) when Hall is on the ice. Red means more shots from that spot compared to league average and blue means fewer shots.
Granted this is not a full-season sample, but that is ridiculous. That’s like — very roughly — scoring an extra net goal every other game. Adding Hall to the already famously dangerous Bergeron line (which Washington has not been good at countering) makes Boston scary. And if goalie Tuukka Rask’s recent play is to be trusted (two shutouts since returning from injury last month), the Bruins might just straight-up stomp the Capitals out of the postseason.
Then again… I’ve got reason to be skeptical about all that.
Let’s start with Boston’s opponents down the stretch run of the rego season. Below is each team they faced next to the percentage of five-on-five shot attempts (SA%) that team took during the whole season.
Six games against Buffalo, two against New Jersey, two against the Rangers. That’s kind of a cakewalk. Using shot-attempt percentage as a crude proxy for team quality, here’s how Boston’s schedule looked.
Not very challenging in the last month, wherein they won 13 of 19 and outscored opponents 65 to 43. A big chunk of Boston’s scary puck control comes from their post-deadline team running roughshod over the Buffalo Sabres, who had basically given up. Below are the aggregate shot-attempt percentages for the Bruins and Capitals against their various opponents this season.
(Can we all please just ignore how Washington got destroyed by Buffalo, possessing just 46 percent of shot attempts?)
Meanwhile, when Boston and Washington have faced each other directly, it’s been a lot closer. Here’s how HockeyViz imagines tonight’s game between Boston and Washington, which will be a bit of an exhibition affair.
That’s pretty tight — a virtual cointoss, one might say. Close games are the domain of luck, where hot goalies and bad bounces decide the winner as much as anything else. Presuming the Capitals can dress a mostly healthy team (who knows), I suspect that’s how this series would go.
Now, I’m not going to make a prediction here, but if I did, it would probably rhyme with faps in heaven.
Headline photos: Amanda Bowen/RMNB
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