Over the next few days, you’ll hear a lot about the Boston Bruins’ sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in last year’s Eastern Conference Final. I’m here to tell you, dear reader, that none of it - or, at least, very little of it - matters.
Yes, many of the same participants return again this year for another round. But last year’s series was held as part of a completely normal playoff year, where this year is anything but. Who advances in this year’s playoffs is much more determined by who has the momentum and is playing at their peak at any given time. And right now, momentum is firmly on the side of the only team to sweep its qualifying round series.
That isn’t to say a matchup against this year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners is going to result in another Hurricanes sweep. But there is plenty of evidence that the Bruins don’t bring nearly the level of performance to this year’s series that they did to last year’s.
Begin with their famous top line. One of the enduring traits of the combination of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand is that they are among the best in the league at both ends of the ice. They can certainly score with the best of them, as evidenced by Pastrnak’s Rocket Richard Trophy-winning campaign. But what makes them truly special is their ability to control play at both ends of the ice. They’re usually mainstays in the “Good” quadrant of this chart. But so far in this postseason, they’re anything but.
That’s Bergeron hiding behind Charlie Coyle just inside the Dull quadrant. And, again, it’s not simply the lack of goal-scoring that’s been the problem for the top line, it’s also the defending. Marchand sitting at nearly five expected goals against per 60 minutes is eye-popping. While they were back to normal service today in their loss to the Capitals, almost entirely controlling play when they were on the ice and deserving better than they got, it’s taken them some time to get up to speed, and the Hurricanes present a more stout defensive challenge than the Capitals.
This won’t continue forever, obviously. Marchand, Pastrnak, Bergeron and Coyle combined for one more point in the round robin than you and I did, and that will clearly change at some point. But the longer it takes for them to find their game, the better it will be for the Hurricanes, who desperately need to take advantage while they can. One thing that could work to their advantage is that Marchand, one of the Bruins’ keystone players, is playing in an empty arena. Without the crowd noise to energize him, he’s looked less engaged so far in the postseason. A less-engaged Marchand is an easier to defend Marchand.
The Hurricanes won’t have the luxury of dictating matchups in the first two games, which means that Rod Brind’Amour might have to get a little creative if he intends to put Jaccob Slavin and either Dougie Hamilton or Sami Vatanen out against the Bruins’ top line. But down the roster, the Hurricanes’ defense should be able to neutralize the depth scorers that proved decisive for the Bruins in last year’s series.
Every one of the six defensemen who played in the Canes’ sweep of the Rangers allowed fewer than two expected goals against at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes, according to Charting Hockey. And the best of the bunch, surprisingly, was none other than Jake Gardiner. Even accounting for a bit of regression on both ends - the Canes can’t keep up a 108 PDO and the Bruins won’t be stuck at 95 forever - if the Hurricanes can bring the same level to this series that they brought to the qualifying round, they will be in solid shape.
On the power play, it’s the same story. The Bruins we’ve seen since the restart are a far cry from the 100-point juggernaut of the regular season. The league’s second-best power play suddenly had the lights shut out in the round robin games, going 0-for-9 on the man advantage. Like with the top line being toothless so far, this will clearly change. But what’s different here is that the Hurricanes are no slouches on the penalty kill.
Any team that can put offensive weapons out during a power play like the Bruins possess is dangerous. They thrive on creating redirections and cleaning up garbage in front of the net. Pastrnak is dangerous as a sniper, but the Bruins don’t really set up a ton of one-timer opportunities. The Hurricanes’ best game plan against the Bruins’ power play is to keep the shooting lanes clear and allow their goaltender (whoever it is) a clean look at shots. In many ways it’s similar to the Rangers’ setup, with Pastrnak playing the Artemi Panarin role and Marchand in front of the net, Mika Zibanejad-style.
The Bruins might not have been at the top of the list of teams the Hurricanes would have wanted to see in the first round. But these Bruins, so far, have been just a faint echo of the regular season steamroller that won their only game against Carolina in a 2-0 shutout in December. It’s a familiar challenge for the Hurricanes, and one they are well-prepared to face - perhaps better prepared, even, than it seems at first glance.