You can break down the Bruins’ first round playoff series against Washington from every angle, but we all know in the end what’s going to decide the upcoming best-of-7 that starts Saturday.
One word: goaltending.
Goaltender is the most important position every playoff season, and the team that gets the best goaltending almost always wins.
So if you’re a Bruins fan, that’s great news: the Bruins not only have the best goaltending in their series with the Capitals, they probably have the best goaltending out of the four teams remaining in the East Division. That should carry them to the NHL semifinals.
But their overwhelming talent and depth in net comes with intrigue. In fact, the Bruins’ goaltending situation could currently be in more flux than at any time since Tuukka Rask took the baton from Tim Thomas.
Here’s a look at all the Bruins’ playoff storylines related to goaltending:
1. They’re good, maybe the best
ESPN, in association with former NHL goalie and current analytic mastermind Stephen Valiquette, came out with their goaltender confidence ratings Thursday. The Bruins ranked fourth, behind Vegas, Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders. Fair enough, but you could definitely argue Boston over New York considering the Islanders’ undying devotion to defense, which costs them at the offensive end (20th in goals scored per game); whereas the Bruins play things a little looser in an effort to get offense from their defense. This has gone particularly well since the trade deadline. You could debate the Tuukka Rask/Jeremy Swayman duo vs. the Semyon Varlamov pair all day, but it’s at worst a push.
When it comes to Rask/Swayman vs. Washington’s Vitek Vanecek/Ilya Samsonov duo, however, it’s a Boston blowout — both in terms of numbers and experience and ESPN confidence rating, which puts the Capitals dead last among the 16 playoff teams.
2. Pressure is on
Rask has always been under a microscope, whether he was playing Game 7 vs. St. Louis or playing in Calgary in mid-February. There are those who love him, those who hate him and those who root against him in hopes their hot takes about him turn true.
But based on the lopsided goaltending matchup in this opening series, and the edge Boston will probably have in the second round, it’s likely that if the Bruins don’t win a couple rounds Rask will be culprit No. 1 — and not just in the eyes of the Rask haters club. We all know it’s not goalie vs. goalie, it’s goalie vs. the other team’s shooters. Nonetheless, Rask should be able to outplay Washington’s inexperienced duo.
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3. Possible swan song
Adding to Rask’s pressure will be his future, which is hanging in the balance. Will he play another season? Will he do it in Boston? Everything’s on the table. And regardless of what’s going to happen beyond this playoff season, his legacy is partially on the line. He has to get the Bruins to the semifinals (or get beat by a Ken Dryden-like performance from a Caps, Penguins or Islanders goalie) in order to erase any questions about his resume before heading elsewhere in the NHL, saying farewell, or inking a new deal here in Boston.
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4. Cassidy’s options
There is no goalie controversy in Boston, regardless of how many sports radio talkers might be on the Swayman train. But this year more than ever, there’s a chance Bruce Cassidy could be faced with a decision as the playoffs unfold. Jaroslav Halak has been a great 1A here, but that’s what he was brought here to do and it was always going to take catastrophe (like Rask leaving the bubble last summer) for Cassidy to turn to the veteran.
The way Swayman has played, one has to wonder if it would take something less momentous for Cassidy to turn to the rookie, even if it’s just to try to find a spark in the midst of a series that might be turning the wrong way. The Bruins trusted Swayman in some big regular season games and he showed nerves of steel. It’s possible Swayman at his best could be better than Rask at less than 100 percent, health-wise, or in terms of performance. That’s not something you could really say about Halak.
Rask might not give Cassidy a reason to have a second thought about who’s starting in Boston’s net, but one has to wonder what it would take for the coach to consider a change and whether he would ever make such a bold move. It’s unchartered territory and it’ll put as much heat on Cassidy as it’ll put on Rask from now until the Bruins are eliminated or raise the Cup come July.