The Carolina Hurricanes will attempt to play both ends of the “rest versus rust” spectrum in consecutive series, hoping to follow up their sweep of the Islanders by punching their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins. The Bruins reeled off three consecutive wins against the Blue Jackets to overcome a 2-1 series deficit and take down Columbus in six games. Below is a look at how each of the major units for each team stacks up against the group they will be facing.
Canes Attack vs. Bruins Defense
While the two teams played each other rather evenly in the three regular season matchups, it is fair to say that not much can be gleaned from delving too deeply into those run-ins as the Eastern Conference Finals dawn. For Carolina though, Sebastian Aho was a particular bright spot in the three meetings with Boston as the 21-year-old Finn (can you believe this kid is still just 21?) netted four goals in three games, and supplemented that with three additional assists. His seven total points against Boston are the most he scored against any Canes opponent this season, even greater than division foes that he faced four times.
Nevertheless, the Bruins defense was dealt a significant blow for Game 1 when the NHL Department of Player Safety handed out a one game suspension to blueliner Charlie McAvoy for his hit on Columbus’ Josh Anderson.
Boston’s Charlie McAvoy has been suspended for one game for an Illegal Check to the Head on Columbus’ Josh Anderson. https://t.co/17QswFLyfI— NHL Player Safety (@NHLPlayerSafety) May 7, 2019
The loss of McAvoy for Game 1 means that the Bruins are without their most reliable defenseman for the series opener, and they will have to get creative in doling out the 24:46 of ice time that McAvoy has averaged in the postseason. His work in chasing down and retrieving pucks in their defensive end was a major part of their success, and made life a bit easier for Zdeno Chara as his partner. Without McAvoy in Game 1, the Canes will have a speed advantage on the Boston defense. The Canes hope his absence will lead to a handful of additional dangerous chances as they attempt to get off on the right foot on the road.
The biggest challenge the Canes may face from the Boston defense is the relentless work from the Bruins forwards. As a team that finished fourth in goals against, the Bruins did so with a solid blueline, but with a notable core of back-checking forwards. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and even younger offensive stars like David Pastrnak have bought into a culture that promotes sound defensive work from the forwards. Arguably, this will be the best combination of skill and hard work within a forward group that the Canes will see. The Canes defense, noted for its aggressive pinching to keep pucks alive in the offensive end, must be on point with their decision-making. If they make a mistake, it will lead to devastating odd-man chances heading the other way, which the Bruins seem to cash in with regularity in their transition from defense to offense.
In total, the most interesting battle inside the Bruins end may well be the Carolina blueline and how they deal with the pesky Boston forwards. Can they make good decisions when pinching, quick decisions and execution when passing, and get shots through from the point? If they can, the Canes will have an advantage. If not, it will create a whole host of problems.
Bruins Attack vs. Canes Defense
Offensively, the Bruins have run put together a pretty stable performance in the playoffs to date. They have avoided being shut out, and have only tallied a single goal just three times in 13 games to date. Their consistent work has been led by the performers that you would expect. David Pastrnak, their leading goal-scorer each of the past two seasons, leads the playoff board with six goals (11 points), while Brad Marchand leads in total points with five goals augmented by eight assists (13 points). Further down the lineup, the Bruins have received clutch work from deadline acquisition Charlie Coyle who took over Game 1 of the Columbus series by scoring the tying goal and ultimately the OT winner as the Bruins got that crucial first game.
Ultimately, the matchup with the Hurricanes defense and the Bruins offense will come down to execution. The blueline is the clear strength of the Canes, and the physical nature of the Bruins is the only thing that, at times, has given the Canes defense significant concern. The loss of Trevor van Riemsdyk could be more impactful in this series, as the Canes will have to rely on Haydn Fleury to remain solid for the entirety of the series. Also, keep an eye on what Jordan Martinook can give, and if Micheal Ferland is able to return at some point. Many view Ferland as somewhat removed from the action as he has not suited up since Game 2 against Washington, but his physical presence could be a boost in a series in which Carolina needs to at least match the physicality brought, particularly on the offensive end, by Boston.
Canes power play vs. Bruins penalty kill
There is simply no way to sugar-coat it, the Hurricanes have been abysmal on the power play in the playoffs. Converting on just four of 38 chances with the man advantage (10.5%), the power play is the one portion of the Canes game that has yet to see any significant success during their run. In order to advance further, this may be a crucial area for the Canes to remedy.
On the penalty kill, the Bruins have killed a solid 31 of 37 (83.8%), which has been good, but not impenetrable. Again, the aggressive nature of the Boston forwards on defense are the key to their solid kill. The Canes simply must get more action deeper in the zone to have success. The best power plays that Carolina produced in the Islanders series contained possession at or below the goal line. The success has not come from shooting opportunities on the outside. If Carolina can get pucks down below to the likes of Justin Williams, Teuvo Teravainen, or Aho, they can expect to generate more.
Bruins power play vs. Canes penalty kill
At the other end of the ice, the Bruins have been scorching hot on the power play. Ten of their 40 playoff goals have come on the power play (10 of 35 on the man advantage), and their regular season success has translated to the playoffs. Once again, Pastrnak (17 pp goals) and Marchand (10 pp goals) lead the way offensively, but Torey Krug has proven to be the most valuable blueliner running the power play, with a team-high 28 assists tallied with the extra man.
Simply put, the Hurricanes must put their best foot forward against this unit for Boston. The Canes kill has been their strongest aspect of their special teams, and it must remain so. With that, they must also do what they can to remain out of the penalty box. If Carolina can play just even on special teams, it should go a long way towards giving them a leg up in winning the series.
While we do not know at this time whether Petr Mrazek is healthy enough to return, or if he absolutely will return when deemed healthy - although it seems likely - if the goaltending for each side in this series is anywhere close to what it was in the first two rounds, each team will be in good hands. Mrazek and his crease-mate Curtis McElhinney have combined to post a sparkling .921 save percentage in 11 games, while giving up just 2.08 goals against per game. On the other end of the ice, Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak were part of a tandem system similar to what Carolina put together, but Rask has carried the load in all 13 postseason games, and has put up outstanding numbers himself (.938 save percentage, 2.02 goals against average).
Often maligned in Boston, Rask has emerged this postseason as a rightfully appreciated backstop that allowed his team to steady and rally back to win their series against Columbus. His Game 6 shutout was his sixth career playoff shutout, and adds to his solid career postseason record. For each team, the physical part of the game will continue to be crucial in that taking away the eyes of the netminder may be a pre-requisite for scoring in this series. The more traffic and deflection opportunities that can be created, the better the odds are of getting a puck past what has been a pretty hot group of goalies as this series approaches.
This series is set to be one of the more interesting matchups in the entire playoffs. Will rust be a factor early for the Canes? Will the loss of McAvoy prove devastating in Game 1 for the Bruins?
I believe that this series is destined to go the distance. There will be haymakers thrown from both sides, each team will win at least once on the other team’s ice, and the series will culminate in a tight, nerve-wrecking Game 7 with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final hanging in the balance. But if you are the Hurricanes, #whynotUs? I say Mr. Game 7 lives up to his moniker and etches his name even deeper in Carolina and NHL lore with a game-winner from the right circle.