Stanley Cup Playoffs preview: Stiff test awaits Caps in first round

Washington Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie (77) celebrates his goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Friday, May 7, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Washington Capitals' Anthony Mantha tells WTOP's Ben Raby his excitement to make his playoffs debut

After a condensed 56-game regular season unlike any before in league history, the Washington Capitals are ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“It’s an opportunity to fulfill a dream,” defenseman John Carlson said earlier this week. “Every single player growing up, every single player as you get older, you dream about these moments and a chance to win.”

For Carlson and his teammates, that opportunity begins in earnest this weekend.

The Capitals host the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of their first-round series Saturday. Capital One Arena will be expanded to 25% capacity, allowing approximately 5,000 fans.

While the Capitals have aspirations of a deep postseason run, they’ll have their hands full in the first round, even with home-ice advantage. In fact, all but one of 16 panelists on NHL.com predicted the Bruins to win the series.

Below are several storylines worth monitoring as the series gets underway.

Lineup concerns remain for Capitals

The Capitals were a depleted bunch during the final week of the regular season. At one point against the Philadelphia Flyers last Saturday, Carlson, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie were all unavailable.

The good news? Ovechkin and Backstrom both returned from lower-body injuries in the regular season finale on Tuesday and Carlson confirmed this week that he’ll be good to go for the start of the playoffs.

The unsettling news? Oshie remains day-to-day with a lower-body injury and has been limited at practice. His status for the series opener is unknown. Kuznetsov and goalie Ilya Samsonov remain on the NHL’s COVID list with no time frame for a potential return.

The Bruins are as healthy as they have been at any point this season.

Bruins trending in right directions

The Bruins loaded up at the NHL’s Trade Deadline, acquiring forwards Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar as well as defenseman Mike Reilly.

In the final month of the regular season (which coincided with the April 12 trade deadline), the Bruins were a league-best 12-4-1. They were also the best defensive team over that stretch, allowing a league-low 1.88 goals against per game.

Hall has been especially effective since joining the Bruins, with eight goals and 14 points in 16 games.

While the Capitals had to cobble together some makeshift lineups down the stretch, the Bruins ended the season playing some of their best hockey of the year.

Opportunity for Vanecek

Head coach Peter Laviolette hasn’t publicly announced who he will tab as his starting goalie, though it’s a safe bet that rookie Vitek Vanecek will get the call.

Boston Bruins right wing Chris Wagner (14) tumbles to the ice in front of Washington Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek (41) during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Vanecek made 37 appearances during the regular season, positing a 21-10-4 record with a 2.70 goals against average and .908 save percentage.

Few would have predicted this opportunity for the 25-year-old, who was third on the organizational depth chart as recently as mid-December.

But with Henrik Lundqvist unable to play this season due to a heart condition, and Samsonov spending time on the COVID list, Vanecek became the team’s workhorse.

“In the start, I was feeling like a rookie and learning the NHL,” said Vanecek. “But when I was playing more and more games, I was feeling like I’ve been here forever.”

Laviolette isn’t overly concerned with Vanecek’s lack of experience.

“I think that once you are with someone for a year and you’ve played the game and you’ve counted on them, this is our team,” Laviolette said. “Vitek had pressure early on when he had to carry the ball by himself … he did a terrific job.”

Catch Game 1 between the Capitals and Bruins on Saturday on 1500AM. Coverage begins with Caps Pregame at 6:45 p.m. ET. Also available online on capsradio247.com

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.

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