Here’s my take on what Dan wanted to know:
1. What’s the difference between this year’s Hurricanes and last year’s Hurricanes?
The Hurricanes are just a better, deeper team overall than last year.
Most of that comes on offense, but the defense is even deeper than a year ago with the additions of Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen, despite Brett Pesce remaining out.
The Canes ranked 11th in the league in goals per game with 3.19, as opposed to 16th with 2.96 last season. The addition of rookie forward Martin Necas to start the season and Vincent Trocheck at the deadline makes this a deeper forward group with more punch throughout.
A lot of the team’s young talent has taken another step forward. Sebastian Aho is well on his way to stardom, and was easily on track to join Jeff O’Neill and Eric Staal in the team’s 40-goal club at the pause before putting up a whopping three goals and eight points in three games against the Rangers.
After primarily playing in the bottom six last year as he earned Rod Brind’Amour’s trust, Andrei Svechnikov has exploded in year two. Lacrosse goals included, he put up 24 goals and 61 points, and, of course had the first playoff hat trick in franchise history in Game 2 against the Rangers.
Svechnikov is growing quickly into the elite goal-scoring power forward he was drafted to be, and, along with Aho and always underrated playmaker Teuvo Teravainen, is part of one of the deadliest top lines in the NHL.
Another facet of the uptick on offense is former Bruin Dougie Hamilton.
Aho was voted team MVP by Carolina’s PHWA Chapter at the end of the season, but, had Hamilton not been injured in January, that would have been a tough call. After a shaky start and strong finish to his first season in Carolina, Hamilton was playing at a Norris Trophy level when he suffered a fractured fibula, sitting second in goals (14) and fourth in points (40) by a defenseman at the time.
2. What’s Dougie Hamilton’s status? Should we expect to see him in this series?
I definitely think so. Hamilton was said to be “getting better” as the Canes approached games two and three of the Rangers series, and rejoined the team at practice after the sweep.
Brind’Amour said Sunday morning that he wasn’t sure yet if Hamilton would be good to go for Game 1, but did say “if he’s ready to go, he’s going to go.” Given that Hamilton has been practicing, I’d expect to see him early, if not in Game 1.
And his importance can’t be overstated. Hamilton added another facet to the Canes’ offensive attack this season, and he might be the best offensive defenseman they’ve ever had.
He was also a huge part of a power play that finished eighth in the league during the regular season.
3. What’s your biggest concern about this Hurricanes team?
Without Brett Pesce, there’s not really another defensive stalwart other than Jaccob Slavin for the Canes.
The pairings of Skjei/Joel Edmundson and Haydn Fleury/Jake Gardiner were very impressive against the Rangers, but the Bruins are a different beast with much more scoring depth. The bottom two pairings, as well as the Jordan Staal line, will need to keep holding their own defensively in this series, especially in the games where Brind’Amour can’t dictate matchups with last change.
I’d also say we need to see a little production from the aforementioned forward depth. The top line did a lot of leg work against the Rangers, but that may not always be the case against a team like the Bruins.
The Canes are going to need guys like Trocheck, Necas (who did have a very good series against the Rangers), Staal and Justin Williams to produce here. I think they will, but it certainly bears watching.
4. What makes you confident (or not confident) that this Hurricanes team can beat the Bruins?
Well I’m certainly not going to put much stock in the Bruins’ round robin performance, as I think we’ll see something more closely resembling the President’s Trophy Winner.
What has me confident is the way the Canes played against the Rangers. They came into the series with some concerns against a team that swept them in the regular season and ... flat-out embarrassed them.
The Canes outscored the Rangers 11-4, and the top line of Aho, Teravainen and Svechnikov combined for seven goals and 15 points in the three games. The penalty kill went 13 for 14. The D pairings played great, and limited the Rangers’ duo of Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin, which gave them fits in the regular season, to two goals and four points in the series.
And it’s funny, coming into the Rangers series, my answer to the previous question would be “goaltending,” but Petr Mrazek (Games 1 and 2) and James Reimer (Game 3) were simply phenomenal against the Rangers.
The duo combined to allow just four goals on 88 Rangers shots, and each made several saves of the highlight-reel variety.
If the Hurricanes keep getting that kind of goaltending, they’re going to be a very tough out.
What has me not confident is the Bruins are still the Bruins. This team won the President’s Trophy and came within a win of the Stanley Cup Last season (as Hurricanes fans know all too well), for a reason.
This is a deep, skilled, physical bunch. The top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak is probably the best in the league. The Bruins have a good D corps. Tuukka Rask is Tuukka Rask. I think the Canes have a good shot here, but this is a whale of a match up to start out with.
5. Who do you see as the most important player for Carolina in this series?
I’m going to go with Mrazek/Reimer.
I think we’ve seen the top line is going to be the top line, Slavin is going to be Slavin, Jordan Staal is going to do his thing. I could go Dougie Hamilton, but we’ll assume he can make a quick impact even after all that time.
Goaltending has been the Hurricanes’ Forrest Gump Box of Chocolates for years, you just never knew what you were going to get. Petr Mrazek was mostly good in the playoffs last year, though he stumbled against the Bruins.
Mrazek was up and down in this regular season, while James Reimer was mostly consistent, especially on the road.
If the Canes can pair good to great goaltending with the above ingredients, they’re a tough out. If they get the capital-E elite goaltending they got against the Rangers, they’re a bona fide Stanley Cup Contender.
Brind’Amour has said it’s likely you’ll see both goalies again in this series, especially if there’s another back-to-back. I’d expect it to be Mrazek in Game 1.
Against an opponent like the Bruins, and going toe to toe with a netminder like Rask, the Canes’ goalies will have to be at their best. That, I think, will be the biggest determining factor for this series.