Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Boston Bruins need every point they can get in the race for a Stanley Cup Playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Washington Capitals have somewhat quietly put together another solid season and are in the race for the Presidents' Trophy.
The Bruins defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 on Tuesday and have won three straight games to tie their season high. The Capitals lost to the New York Islanders 3-2 on Tuesday and have lost two of three.
Although each team will be on the second end of a back-to-back, I expect it to be a fast, physical game from the drop of the puck when the Bruins (26-21-6) visit the Capitals (33-11-6) at Verizon Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. E.T.; NBCSN, SNE, SNO, TVA Sports, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Firstly, they are scoring goals again and have at least four goals in seven of their past 12 games. Forward Brad Marchand has been a part of that and is on a little bit of a streak now - he had 11 goals in January, including five two-goal games.
Next is the play of goaltender Tuukka Rask. He's 25-12-4 with a 2.17 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and five shutouts. As good as he's been, their backups have been just as bad with a 1-9-2 record in games not started by Rask. But playing in the Atlantic Division is a huge help since no team has a stranglehold on second or third place and the playoff race likely will go down to the wire.
Boston's penalty kill has been great almost all season. The Bruins ranked second in the League entering play Tuesday at 86.5 percent and killed off all four penalties against the Lightning on Tuesday. The penalty kill has kept the Bruins in games and helped them win some.
Video: BOS@TBL: Rask hangs on to shot through traffic
Minuses: Boston has been too inconsistent. On some nights, the Bruins have looked like an outstanding team and then on other nights, they've stepped back. They've had too many losing streaks following winning streaks. Patrice Bergeron has been inconsistent and he's too good of a player to for that to be the case. He has 12 goals this season after scoring at least 30 in two of the past three seasons. Maybe it's a function of playing too much hockey, with Bergeron having played for Canada in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 prior to the season.
At times, the Bruins don't play well enough based on Claude Julien's system. There are some nights when you're watching them and defensively they aren't where they need to be or are capable of being.
Dominic Moore (eight goals) had a really good first half but beyond him, the Bruins will need more offense from their bottom six the rest of the way.
Lastly, from what I've seen, they only have one consistent net-front forward in David Backes, who is willing to go to the paint and pay the price. He plays the Bruins' style of game but when he was out with injury no one replaced that. Backes does that every game and no other player does it with any kind of regularity.
Pluses: You can make the case that they were the hottest team in the League before the break, winning 14 of 18 games (14-2-2). It's the usual cast of characters, including Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but they're also getting production up and down the lineup from Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky and Lars Eller
Washington needed more production from its defense, and has gotten that, too. Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson each has at least four goals and 25 points.
Braden Holtby has been outstanding. Based on his last push here, he's back in the Vezina conversation after winning it last season. He may have been overshadowed by Rask, Devan Dubnyk and Sergei Bobrovsky earlier but he's just done his thing. I had a chance to sit down with Holtby at the All-Star break and, despite his tying the single-season record for wins (48), he said he didn't feel his second half last season was as good as it could have been.
Video: CHI@WSH: Holtby uses his pad to rob Anisimov twice
Minuses: For a lot of guys on this team, it's about the playoffs, and understandably so. But as we all know, you still have to do all the things that it takes to be successful now to give yourself a chance to get there and do those things in the spring. They have to manage to not get bored here, which could be a natural tendency for such a good team.
I still think there could be a little bit more production from there defense beyond the three I mentioned. They are mobile enough and they skate well enough. They're not dependent on it, but once the games get tight you need to be able to score and generate points from "unlikely" sources. Washington doesn't have a pure offensive defenseman but has gotten a few players to chip in nicely.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Does Boston try to play a more physical style? Julien likely will tell his team to not give Washington any space in the middle of the ice.
2. How does Washington's power play fare? If the Capitals get time and space to set up, they can be pretty lethal.
3. The goalie matchup between Rask and Holtby. Two guys who are front and center in the Vezina Trophy race.