By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
I'm really not sure that the Boston Bruins ever truly prepared for a playoff meeting with the Carolina Hurricanes.
It's not the only reason why this Eastern Conference Finals series between the Bruins and 'Canes is unique.
"I think there are going to be some unique challenges," Bruins general manager said of the B's third-round meeting against the Hurricanes. "They’re a strong forechecking team. They get on you, and they get back up on the puck. Their back pressures been good. Their goaltending has been excellent. As I mentioned, their shooting percentage took a big jump from February on being able to score some goals and have some confidence as a result of it."
But there's no doubt that the Bruins know where the Hurricanes' motor comes from, and that's first-year head coach Rod Brind'Amour, whose energetic and relentless style is something embodied by every Hurricane skater.
"I think they’re a reflection of their coach and how he approaches things in his own lifestyle, and they’ve got some juice," said Sweeney. "So, we’re going to have to be at our best, and I’ve said that before. It’s not going to change going forward."
Regular season review
The Bruins and Whalercanes matched up three times in the regular season, with the Bruins capturing victories in two of their three head-to-heads, and with each team scoring 10 goals.
The teams had a relatively vanilla early-season meeting won by Boston before the Hurricanes absolutely walloped the Bruins in a pre-Christmas Break head-to-head at PNC Arena. You could argue that it was one of the Bruins' worst efforts of the year.
But the teams had a great meeting in their final meeting of the 2018-19 regular season, with the David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk combination ultimately powering the Bruins to victory on Garden ice.
Boston finds themselves back in the third round for the first time since 2013 thanks to a round-one comeback against the Maple Leafs, and a second-round meeting with Columbus that saw Boston rattle off three straight victories to win the series in six games.
The Hurricanes got here by bumping off the defending champion Capitals in seven games in round one, and then knocking off the Islanders (coached by the man behind the Washington bench last season when they won it all) in four games. They made the Islanders look straight-up clueless over the course of their four-game sweep, no less. Sleeping on them because of their original playoff position as a wild card team would be perhaps the dumbest move one could make.
And it's one the B's don't make on planning.
"They're here for a reason," David Krejci said of the Hurricanes.
This is the first time the B's and 'Canes have met in the postseason since their second-round meeting in 2009. That series saw the Hurricanes bump off the top-seeded Bruins in seven games behind Scott Walker's overtime goal against Tim Thomas. Include the Carolina franchise's time as the Whalers and these teams have met in the postseason four times in total, with the the Black and Gold capturing series wins in all but that aforementioned '09 series.
This might be the best playoff hockey Tuukka Rask has played in his entire career. It's definitely his best two-round segment since his middle rounds against the Rangers and Penguins in 2013, anyway. Through 13 games this postseason, Rask has posted a .938 save percentage (.944 even-strength save percentage), and successfully outplayed Sergei Bobrovsky in round two, with a .951 even-strength in Boston's six-game series victory over the Blue Jackets.
"Outstanding," Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said of Rask's second-round showing.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, have yet to name a Game 1 starter.
But you can believe that they're getting something good no matter if it's Petr Mrazek or Curtis McElhinney.
Knocked out of Game 2 of Carolina's second-round series with a lower-body ailment, Mrazek is a game-time decision for Game 1, and enters this round with a 5-3 record and .927 even-strength save percentage. McElhinney, meanwhile, shined in a fill-in role for Carolina, with a perfect 3-0 record and .967 even-strength save percentage.
After a strong finish to their second-round series against the Blue Jackets, there's a growing belief that the Black and Gold's top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak is back and ready to return to their destructive ways. Not only an offensive juggernaut, The Bergeron Line's three-zone effectiveness makes them an unparalleled threat to any team that dare tries to stop them, and Brind'Amour acknowledged exactly that on Thursday morning.
"I'm going to hear about that over and over again and rightfully so," Brind'Amour said when faced with yet another question about The Bergeron Line and their potential to dominate a game. "I don't know, how do you handle it? Do you just put your best guys out there and hope that they can play well against them? They're great players. I don't think you ever shut down great players. You just hope to contain them, and you hope your other guys can produce and make a game of it. We know how good they are. I said this yesterday, it's not just about those guys. They have a lot of other guys, too, that balance that team out. When they're on the ice, yeah, we're aware of them, but they got a lot of other guys too."
It will be interesting to see if Cassidy sticks them on 'Canes star center Sebastian Aho (a player with Johnny Gaudreau-like qualities with his ability to make you miss, according to Cassidy), or if he looks for the easier, weaker matchup to let them absolutely wreck a team like they did for extended stretches in Boston's Game 5 win over the Blue Jackets.
Bruins winger Brad Marchand is crispy. He's also the most important forward the B's have in this series.
One of Boston's most effective skaters in the team's regular season three-game series against the Hurricanes, Marchand tallied two goals and five points, and comes into this with 11 goals and 22 points in 28 career games against the Hurricanes.
"[Marchand] is going to come through, or it won’t be for lack of effort," said Cassidy. "Sometimes they’ve got good players too that are stepping up their game, but I’m never worried about March in the big games. He proved that a lot of years ago that he can get it done. I think he thrives on it, and [Patrice Bergeron], same thing. They’re money when it’s crunch time."
I think Torey Krug finally looked at his best in Boston's Game 6 closeout victory over the Blue Jackets. He took hits to make plays, used his offensive timing to spark rushes, and even had a few d-zone stops to get the Bruins out of trouble. And if this series becomes a matchup of active blue lines, there's no doubt that Krug is going to have to lead that charge. Especially with Charlie McAvoy on the shelf for Game 1 because of his suspension for an illegal check to the head last round.
Jordan Staal has successfully turned back the clock and returned to form as a legitimate threat this postseason. Think about this: The Hurricanes are now 6-1 this postseason when Staal records at least one point, and Staal's 53.5 faceoff percentage ranks as the third-best percentage among playoff skaters with at least 200 battles at the dot this spring.
Is this Dougie Hamilton's revenge series? A player that just straight-up did not want to be with the Bruins when his contract expired in 2015, Hamilton has yet to truly get any sort of revenge against Boston, with two goals and an assist in nine career head-to-heads against the Bruins. But Hamilton plays a massive role for this Carolina team, and given some of the problems the Bruins had with Morgan Rielly and Seth Jones, there's no doubt that this could be a big series for Hamilton.
The Bruins will win if...
- Their power play can get things going offensively. For all the talk of Carolina's strengths, their penalty kill has perhaps been their greatest weakness, with the Hurricanes entering this series with a 75.0 percent kill rate (fourth-worst among the 16 playoff teams this spring). Boston has a power-play with a talent level much closer to that of the Caps, too, which went 6-for-24 (25 percent success rate) in their seven-game series against Carolina in round one. Puck-management on those power-play opportunities -- especially from that first unit -- will absolutely play a part in the B's ability to win this series, too, as they simply can't continue to give up shorthanded breakaways to this feisty bunch of jerks.
- The Bruins can steal one in Carolina. For all the dumb jokes about Carolina and how it's not a hockey market, blah, blah, please note that their home-ice advantage has made them legitimately unbeatable at PNC Arena. It's hardly been close on Carolina ice, too, as Brind'Amour's squad has outscored the opposition 22-7 at home this spring.
- Charlie McAvoy's one-game suspension actually works to his advantage and he returns to the ice with even more jump. I think McAvoy has steadily improved as Boston's top defender with each showing, so just imagine some extra juice to his game there. That could truly make the difference in this series of active defenders on both sides.
The Hurricanes will win if...
- They can worm their way into the B's heads. The Hurricanes made Alex Ovechkin lose his damn mind in round one, and made normally-friendly Islanders coach Barry Trotz experience similar headaches in a four-game sweep in round two. The Bruins certainly have some combustible pieces in their lineup, too, so if the Hurricanes can win some one-on-one battles against the B's top talents and grind them down, that chaos may favor these jerks.
- The Bruins forget about Justin Williams in a Game 7. This guy is terrifying in Game 7 situations.
- Charlie McAvoy's one-game breather by way of a suspension derails his momentum. Listen, the Bruins have had a great defensive effort at times this postseason. Other times, it's been The McAvoy Show with everybody else on the Boston blue just trying to keep up. If Brandon Carlo slips, and if Connor Clifton and Steven Kampfer are limited, McAvoy taking a step back would be an absolute killer for the Black and Gold's right-side defense corps.
Official prediction: On paper, the Bruins are the better team. But if you've watched the Hurricanes at all this postseason, you know that they're not playing on paper. This Hurricanes team can give you fits, and I think their home-ice advantage is as legit as any in the league. In fact, it may be the best home-ice remaining among the final four. I really think we might look at this series the same way we looked at the 2011 East Finals against the Lightning. It was a team with a ton of momentum, a coach that pushed all the right buttons, and it ultimately came down to who came through with the big play in the final period. So with all that in mind, I think this one goes the distance, but with the Bruins pulling it out in a seven-game series victory.