Tom Wilson has faced the Boston Bruins a few times since drilling Brandon Carlo with a hit that drew a seven-game suspension.
Game 1 of the Bruins’ first-round playoff series against the Capitals on Saturday night in Washington is Carlo’s first game back on the ice against Wilson since March 3 and the next, high-stakes chapter in the seasonlong tussle between the rivals. Even if former Boston captain Zdeno Chara facing his old team brings some friendly familiarity, there is plenty of bad blood between these teams.
Carlo knows this series could get nasty.
“They’re a big, heavy team,” he said. “It’s quite often (the message is) ‘Don’t retaliate in those situations,’ where that could get you into some penalty troubles.”
Retribution might be unwise with so much at stake, and these veteran teams with significant playoff experience understand that. Washington won the Stanley Cup in 2018, Boston went to the final in 2019 and the star power is overflowing from Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand.
“Washington is a team that has high energy, plays physical, has got high-end talent and is very deep throughout the lineup, so for us it’s about what we can bring against that,” Bergeron said. “We kind of have some of the same attributes where I think we can play that heavy game but also we play a high-energy, fast game. It’s going to be playoff hockey.”
Chara should know exactly what to expect after playing 150 playoff games with the Bruins. This will be his first career playoff game against them, and as much as Marchand joked about Chara knowing Boston’s “code words,” no one’s too worried about the 44-year-old defenseman sharing trade secrets.
“Playing for this coaching staff for as long as Zdeno has and playing with the players that he has for his tenure here in Boston, you certainly know some tendencies,” Bruins president Cam Neely said. “But also, on the flip side, guys certainly know how Zdeno is going to play and what to expect from him and maybe how to exploit that a little bit, as well.”
Washington has a handful of questions going into the playoffs, including center Evgeny Kuznetsov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov’s lengthy second stint on the league’s COVID-19 protocol list and the health of right winger T.J. Oshie, who has a lower-body injury.
Ovechkin returned from missing seven of eight games late in the season with a lower-body injury. The Russian superstar was playoff MVP during the Cup run, and how Ovechkin goes often determines how far his team can survive in the postseason.
“We need him to be on point with his game, we need him to be healthy,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “He’s obviously a difference-maker inside of a game. To remove that difference-maker, now you’re looking at other ways to make up for that.”
Laviolette doesn’t plan to reveal lineup decisions in the playoffs, including his starting goaltender. Rookie Vitek Vanecek seems to be the likely choice; he won the job almost by default because of Samsonov’s absence.
“I was pretty good in the season and get ready for anything,” said Vanecek, who played 37 games and tied for sixth in the NHL with 21 wins. “Now, we will see what happen in the playoffs. It’s first time, but I will do what I can and help the team in every single game.”
The Bruins have veteran Tuukka Rask, with impressive rookie Jeremy Swayman and longtime backup Jaroslav Halak ready in net. Rask’s next playoff game will be his 94th, and he could again be capable of backstopping Boston on a long run.
“He’s one of those guys that always rises up to the challenge and to the occasion, so I’m expecting the same thing,” Bergeron said.
The Bruins are 12-4-1 since adding forwards Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar and defenseman Mike Reilly at the trade deadline. Hall, who lamented a lack of confidence after the trade from Buffalo, has eight goals and six assists in 16 games with Boston.
“He looks confident to me,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You’re seeing it with points and goals and scoring chances and all the other fancy analytics that go into it.”
FLASHBACK TO 2012
Boston and Washington last faced off in the playoffs in 2012, an epic seven-game series with four overtime games and the usually reserved Backstrom suspended a game for cross-checking Rich Peverly in the face. Joel Ward won it in OT in Game 7, knocking out the Bruins when they were defending champions.
Besides Chara, a handful of players remain who were in uniform that series: Bergeron, Marchand, Rask (who dressed but didn’t play) and David Krejci for the Bruins, Ovechkin, Backstrom and John Carlson for the Capitals.
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