By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
If the Hurricanes are hellbent on playing like an uncaged animal, and if the referees are determined to ‘contain’ these games to the (utterly insane) degree they did in Game 1, they’re going to get absolutely steamrolled by the Bruins.
This isn’t a theory or a take. It’s simply the reality of the head-to-head dynamic between these two teams.
Highlighted in our official series preview as one of the reasons why the Bruins would win this series, Carolina entered this series with the fourth-worst penalty kill this spring (75 percent success rate when down a man), and the worst among the four clubs still in contention for Lord Stanley. Boston’s power play, meanwhile, ranked as the top among the postseason field of 16, with 10 goals on 35 power-play opportunities through two rounds.
And as well documented, the B’s power play has frequently been the team’s safety net when five-on-five scoring dried up or struggled to break through with consistent chances, as they did with a pair of third-period power-play goals to take a 5-2 final in Thursday’s Game 1 at TD Garden .
“We took penalties and we need to kill them,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, whose penalty kill group lost control and surrendered two easy-looking goals on five trips to the box, admitted after the defeat. “Whether they are good or not or they let some go that should have been called, I mean that’s going to happen every night so we need to come up with a better way to kill them and then when we get our power plays we need to make them count.”
“Everyone knows that those penalties kind of cost us the game,” Sebastian Aho admitted after the loss that snapped the Hurricanes’ six-game winning streak. “But it’s fine, we’ve just got to stay out of the box and keep playing our game.”
To Aho’s point, but maybe not to this level of intensity, it’s obvious that the Hurricanes have to play like this.
The Canes are an energy team, and are the 20-man embodiment of everything that made Brind’Amour a veteran of nearly 1,500 NHL games. They battle for every inch of ice and do it right in your face. That’s a natural element in every team’s game this time of year, of course, but it’s especially important to Carolina.
That strategy to seek-and-annoy eventually worked and allowed them to successfully grind the Caps down to nothing in their seven-game series win in round one, and that agitation helped frustrate the Islanders into a four-game playoff exit.
This really comes back to a gap in high-end forward talent. This is not to suggest that the ‘Canes are a totally talentless group (Aho is a freakin’ wizard) but there’s a significant dropoff between these teams once you get beyond the top two forwards.
I mean, think about it: The Bruins have Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, David Krejci, and Jake DeBrusk. That’s probably the order in which we’d rank their most talented forwards. It’s a relatively deep group, especially when your third-line talents like Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle are also rolling. Now, play the same game with Carolina and it goes Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and…. Nino Niederreiter, maybe? Jordan Staal and Justin Williams are fantastic veterans, and they’ve chipped in with some big goals, but considering either to be your third-best forward in 2019 is a tad yikes-y.
Carolina’s active defense is an obvious difference-maker, but this gap in forward power should leave the ‘Canes to take their victories at five-on-five whenever possible and not leave this to the skill play of a power-play bonanza.
Especially when your repeated trips to the box gave the Bruins more than enough to adjust their breakouts and figure out where their best chances will come when up a man, which the Bruins undoubtedly did in their first third period comeback of the postseason.
“I think that we got some looks there, our breakouts were not necessarily what we wanted they did a great job of clogging those up. I thought that we got some looks at the end of the second and our skill guys we’re feeling it a bit,” said DeBrusk.
So much of what Carolina’s done this postseason has been based on making you lose your mind.
But that did not happen in Game 1. Not when they gave the B’s the number of freebies they did while trying to protect a lead.
If anything, they were the ones that lost control.
The Staal boarding on Chris Wagner was as brainless as it gets, and can’t happen with a player who anchors Carolina penalty-killing group (only two forwards have logged more shorthanded time on ice than Staal this postseason). Given the iffy-at-best nature of last night’s game from a whistle standpoint, Staal is actually probably lucky his cross-check to Brad Marchand’s back didn’t prematurely end a second-period power-play opportunity for the Hurricanes. But Johansson made sure Staal paid for the former, with the game-tying goal scored with Staal in the box for the board on Wagner.
Then Dougie Hamilton’s desire to make up for bailing on a hit from Joakim Nordstrom put him back in the box by way of an interference hit on David Backes. Bergeron used that opportunity to strike for what held as the game-winning goal, scored just 28 seconds later, while Hamilton complained to the media about the penalties after the loss.
Williams, meanwhile, could be found arguing with Zdeno Chara and the officials in front of the penalty boxes during almost every stoppage from Minute 1 through Minute 60. There was even a shot of the grizzled Williams sitting on the Carolina bench and shaking his head in frustration following a post-whistle clash with the 6-foot-9 Boston captain.
The ‘Canes were the agitated. The Jerks were the annoyed.
The Bruins, meanwhile, were the unfazed.
That’s a result of a blood feud of a first-round series against the Maple Leafs, and a heavy, heavy second-round that saw Boston go up some king agitators in Josh Anderson, Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and more.
“I think with the past two series with the physicality that was brought — especially against Columbus at times — I didn’t think it seemed too physical out there,” Brandon Carlo admitted with a smile. “It was a good game. It was strong. Guys were hard on pucks the entire time. But as for the hitting standpoint, I didn’t think I was getting blown up at any point.”
In fact, the shoddy Hurricane penalty kill was the only thing blown up in Game 1.
A predictable-yet-scary thought for a Hurricanes team that simply can’t afford these kind of mistakes against Boston’s best.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has also been a voting member of the Boston Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association since 2013. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.