While the Carolina Hurricanes rest up following their round two sweep of the New York Islanders, the battle on the other side of the bracket rages on as the Boston Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets continue to fight it out for the right to meet the Hurricanes. With the Bruins currently holding a 3-2 series lead, a Bruins win in Columbus on Monday night would set the stage for the Conference Finals, while a Blue Jackets home victory would result in a Game 7 in Boston on Wednesday. Below is a breakdown of the two teams, and a bit about which may well be a better matchup for the Canes.
In this corner...
While it has been six years since the Boston Bruins last advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs, the veteran squad from Beantown does have a significant history in the postseason. A team that has shown time and again that their toughness and defensive style can control games, the B’s have already participated in six one-goal games in the postseason. With a veteran core group of players that include Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, the ageless Zdeno Chara, and David Krejci, the past few seasons have seen the influx of the next generation of Bruins stars with David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk and Charlie McAvoy picking up a heavier load in terms of offensive production and defensive responsibility.
For the second season in a row, Pastrnak led the Bruins in goals (38 goals), as he has quickly become the most dominant offensive talent on the roster. His all-around offensive game continues to allow him to not only convert his chances, but create excellent opportunities for others. With three goals and four points in the past two victories over Columbus to help build the 3-2 series advantage, it is clear that Pastrnak is the go-to offensive weapon in Boston.
Defensively, the Bruins have put together the typical successful defensive system along with effort that makes scoring in the postseason so difficult. By making it hard for teams to enter the zone with any sort of speed in the neutral zone, they are forcing more dump-ins and relying on massive bodies like Chara and Brandon Carlo to win those battles and make generating offense that much more difficult for their opponent.
Tuukka Rask, who has often been maligned in Boston, has put together a terrific playoff performance to date. His .932 save percentage has consistently given the Bruins a chance each night in the postseason, even when Boston has struggled scoring themselves. He has also played a big part in bailing out his teammates who, at times in both the Columbus and Toronto series, have gotten careless with turnovers when exiting the defensive zone.
Boston entered play with the Blue Jackets coming off of a grueling seven game series with the Leafs. If the Jackets can hold serve at home in Game 6, Boston would again be pushed to a Game 7 at home. Would fatigue become a factor should they advance?
And in this corner...
Columbus Blue Jackets
While the Blue Jackets entered the postseason as the final entrant from the Eastern Conference, they announced their presence with resounding authority as they ousted the President’s Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in a four-game sweep. Buoyed by significant trade deadline acquisitions in Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Adam McQuaid (out thus far in the playoffs due to injury), the Blue Jackets shrugged off their uneven play and trade rumors for their own impending UFAs in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to secure the second wildcard in the East.
In the playoffs, they have been nothing short of spectacular, led by the incredible work from Bobrovsky in net. His .928 save percentage and 2.33 goals against average do not accurately tell the picture of the terrific work the two-time Vezina winner has done. Operating in the John Tortorella system that places a high value on blocking shots in front of the goaltender leads to maximum buy-in on the defensive end, but also can lead to a number of screened shots towards the net if the attempt isn’t blocked. Bobrovsky has been a wizard with his positioning and rebound control, while also making the occasional spectacular save on deflections and rebound attempts.
The bottom line is, the Blue Jackets will continue to ride their goalie as far as he can take them.
Offensively, Columbus has been much quieter against Boston, having not scored more than three goals in any one game and a total of 11 goals in the first five games. The attack has been led by the two guys you would expect to have a big role. Duchene and Panarin each have tallied five goals to date, including two pivotal goals from Duchene in the two wins against Boston (OT winner in Game 2, and the game winner in Game 3).
The other star that has blossomed in the postseason run thus far has been defenseman Seth Jones. Averaging 28:30 of ice time in the playoffs, Jones has been a warrior for the Blue Jackets as he plays on every unit for the team. His nine points (three goals, six assists) only provide a small view of what he has provided his team as the most valuable skater on the ice.
In order for the Blue Jackets to advance past Boston, however, they will need more production from the rest of their roster. Cam Atkinson only has two goals in nine playoff games after scoring 41 during the regular season. Dzingel, Josh Anderson, and Boone Jenner, all important secondary scorers for the Blue Jackets, have combined for only three points in the entire second-round series. Without getting production from those players who were so valuable all season, the Jackets will fight an increasingly uphill battle against the Bruins.
What Outcome is Best for Carolina?
While both teams will present significant challenges (of course they will, it is the Eastern Conference Finals!), I believe the nod will go towards Columbus being the favored opponent at this time. Two reasons for this:
1) The Hurricanes would hold the home-ice advantage over the Blue Jackets, meaning Games 1, 2, 5, and 7 would be in Raleigh, where the Canes are currently unbeaten in postseason play.
2) The familiarity of a divisional opponent would turn the contest into more of a battle of wills, as neither team will be able to present many surprises to the other. Both teams are what they are at this point, it will only come down to who executes their game the best.
Above all else, Canes fans should root for a Columbus victory in Game 6 to push this series back to Boston. Canes fans are surely aware of the toll the seven-game has on a team after the Canes first round victory, but Boston would be pushing themselves to the limit in back-to-back series. Although the edge gained could be small, every detail matters at this time of year. Also, who doesn’t want an extra game! Enjoy the hockey!