The Capitals defeated the Bruins by a 3-1 final on Saturday. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)
Given the way the last two years played out, it almost felt unnatural to wake up for today’s regular season finale and realize that the Bruins, who clinched the playoffs for the first time since 2014 with last Tuesday’s win over Tampa Bay, were not in a do-or-die situation.
That’s not to say that they couldn’t make life interesting, or that there was nothing for the Bruins to play for in Saturday’s midday visit from a anything-but-resting Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals group.
With the Senators taking care of business against the Rangers in a matinee affair, a win against the Caps and the Bruins would have locked themselves in the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic for a first-round showdown with those Senators. A loss, however, and the Bruins would have to wait to know their fate (a throwback to last year) thanks to the Maple Leafs’ remaining games, and whether it would involve a series in Ottawa, or a drop down into the second wild card to take on the Capitals in the opening round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Naturally, the Bruins opted for the second choice, as a 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Capitals has put them back in a waiting game.
Down Noel Acciari (upper-body) and Torey Krug (lower-body), the Bruins came into this game operating with the decision not to rest anybody with the exception of Tuukka Rask (rest) given what was at stake for the club. But that decision to sit the 30-year-old Rask, who has been on fire for the Bruins of late, for Anton Khudobin took just one shot and 4:21 to bite the Bruins.
On an odd-man rush off a bad line change, it went Justin Williams to Marcus Johansson as the Caps swept through the Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo pairing with ease before Johansson beat a sprawled Khudobin for his 24th goal of the season. It was not the only deficit of the first period, either, as an Alex Ovechkin hit on Carlo from behind knocked the 20-year-old out of the game.
In a game that ramped up with intensity and post-whistle nonsense, the Bruins finally answered when Colin Miller scored his sixth goal of the season on a finish of a Drew Stafford net-front chance, and the Bruins were back in it.
…For all of 56 seconds.
The Capitals immediately responded with a goal from Kevin Shattenkirk tucked right under the crossbar, and added a third when Justin Williams atoned for his goaltender interference nullification of a would-be goal just moments prior and connected for 24th goal of the season, scored at the 19:10 mark of the second period. From there, and as Khudobin exited due to a sickness, it was all over for the Bruins, who put just seven shots on net in the third and final period of play of a listless, don’t-get-hurt loss.
So now the Bruins wait.
The good news, in addition to them, y’know, already being in the playoffs is that their fate depends on just one team: the Maple Leafs. Behind the Bruins by just two points and with two games left, the Bruins need the Leafs to lose just one game in regulation to hang onto the No. 3 seed and assure themselves of a first-round matchup with the Senators, as that would make the Leafs incapable of passing the Bruins in points (and the Bruins hold the regulation/overtime win tiebreaker). But if the Leafs finish their year 2-0-0 or 1-0-1, then it’s onto D.C. as the East’s second wild card for a date with the Capitals. The Bruins do catch a slight break in those two games, however, as the Leafs will play the Penguins tonight and the Blue Jackets tomorrow.
It’s not hard to figure out where the Bruins’ rooting interests should be this weekend, too.
As they showed for 60 minutes today — and without Braden Holtby in their crease, too — the Capitals are a buzzsaw of a nightmare for the Bruins. And the positive vibes of a playoff berth would probably last just five games in a series with them. Draw Ottawa and maybe you’re not talking about a guaranteed win (the Sens swept the season series), but you’re talking about a deep series where the Black and Gold could have a legitimate chance of making noise on into the second round.
Next up for the Bruins? Somewhere in a country’s capital.