For what seems like forever, the Boston Bruins have been the perpetual “yes, but...” when assessing the Carolina Hurricanes’ playoff chances.
Yes, the Hurricanes have better scoring depth, but...the Bruins counter with the best line in hockey.
Yes, the Hurricanes’ defense is elite in spots, but...top to bottom the Bruins have just that little bit more.
Yes, the Hurricanes might be able to keep it close, but...as a last line of defense, Tuukka Rask will give the Bruins just enough to hold the Hurricanes at bay.
Well, Rask is gone now, and I can’t believe what I’m about to type but it’s true: goaltending in this series is a definitive advantage for the Hurricanes. I’ll pause for a moment while you pick yourself up off the floor.
No, really. The Hurricanes have absolutely owned the Bruins this year (to the tune of outscoring them 16-1 with two shutouts in three games!) and it has been due in large part to their goaltending. And even though Frederik Andersen was the goalie of record in each of the Hurricanes’ wins in this series during the regular season, what Antti Raanta has done is not to be discounted and still outshines anything the Bruins’ revolving door has offered this season.
Let’s look a little deeper into the matchup in net to see where the Canes’ advantages lie.
On these charts, blue is good, and there’s more blue on Freddie Andersen’s shot chart than you’d see anywhere outside the Democratic National Convention. What stands out so much about Andersen’s season is that the defense in front of him has been good, but far from extraordinary, yet he’s saved more than 30 goals above expected.
His absence due to injury looms large, in the sense that any team that’s as reliant on Vezina-caliber goaltending as the Hurricanes have been are an undoubtedly weaker team without Andersen, but Antti Raanta has been no slouch himself:
Raanta’s struggles in the low- to mid-slot are largely explained by a vulnerability to the backhand. It’s the most glaring hole on his resume, and it’s one that Andersen is much better at handling. Wraparound backhands are an issue for Andersen, but he’s so strong in every other phase of the game that it only knocks him down a peg from otherworldly to well above average overall.
Incidentally, both goaltenders are above average at stopping deflections in the low slot, which is an area where the Bruins have historically excelled. Raanta actually might be a little better; Andersen is a little vulnerable to deflections in the bottom of the right circle below the face-off dot.
Pyotr Kochetkov doesn’t have the extensive history of his two teammates, making him a little harder to peg, but he’s at least been as expected: six goals allowed on 5.4 expected goals in his three wins to start his NHL career. The Hurricanes’ defense is notably tighter in front of him.
The bottom line is that the Hurricanes could certainly use Andersen to return as soon as possible, but they’re in good hands with Raanta. I would imagine that Kochetkov will only see duty as a break-glass option, at least to start with.
With Tuukka Rask retired to start the season, the Bruins had a decision to make between Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark. The Hurricanes have played each of them once, winning both, and also faced Rask during his aborted comeback attempt in January, so they have beaten each goalie exactly once this year.
Swayman and Ullmark have truly been a platoon: each has played 41 games, with largely similar numbers, .914/2.41 for Swayman, .917/2.45 for Ullmark. Bruce Cassidy has rotated back and forth all year between the two, with the longest run of consecutive starts belonging to Swayman, who made five in a row in mid-March.
Ullmark has slightly better shot charts than Swayman:
Swayman is better at tips and deflections, but he’s godawful at wrist shots from the slot. If the Hurricanes can get free in the slot with him in net, they should do everything they can to turn the Bruins’ goal into a shooting gallery.
Here’s the thing, though: the Bruins’ goaltending in a vacuum, even with Rask, hasn't been truly elite for years. In terms of expected goals, they’ve let in pretty much what they should have over the past five years or so. The issue, as it’s always been with a team led by a perennial Selke Trophy winner, is breaking through to get enough chances on those goaltenders to make a difference. Boston has been one of the league’s best teams at limiting quality shots, and this year was no different. I mean, this should be illegal:
The difference this year is that the Hurricanes’ goaltending is significantly better than the Bruins. That means that instead of giving the Bruins the advantage due to their superior defensive play with comparable goaltending, the Hurricanes can instead flip the script and count on their goalies to prevent goals that would otherwise have sunk them in years past.
If I’m the Hurricanes, I’m planning to face Ullmark the majority of the time. Swayman’s weaknesses (especially in the slot and the home plate area out to the blue line) play right into the Hurricanes’ hands, as they are notoriously averse to the net front area that is Swayman’s strength. Ullmark is more solid against the Hurricanes’ strengths, but the best-case scenario for the Bruins is probably him playing Raanta to a draw, similar to years past. If that’s the worst-case for the Hurricanes, rather than the default expectation the way it’s been before, that’s a big win for Carolina.
Now...will the Hurricanes be able to actually set those shots up without being pestered by the stingy Bruins defense? That’s another topic, and it’s one we’ll cover tomorrow. But no matter what, it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to say that the Hurricanes’ goaltending is a strength in a series, and a definitive advantage over even one of the top teams in the league.