The club that swept the Tampa Bay Lightning is out. So is the team that beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games. So, will it be the Boston Bruins or the Carolina Hurricanes representing the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final?
It hasn’t been an easy playoff run for the Bruins. The Toronto Maple Leafs forced them to Game 7 in the first round and the Columbus Blue Jackets were hardly pushovers after entering Round 2 with the luxury of some added rest. Adversity has afforded the Bruins the opportunity to prove their mettle: They’ve gone down in a series on four occasions already, but won the next game each time.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are rounding into form at the ideal moment. They haven’t lost since the Washington Capitals pummeled them 6-0 in Game 5 of the first round; six straight victories against the Caps and the New York Islanders should have them brimming with confidence entering the franchise’s first trip to the conference finals in a decade.
All told, the stage appears to be set for a stellar matchup. Let’s break it down ahead of Game 1 on Thursday night.
Bruins: Boston has gotten offense from a multitude of sources. Seven Bruins forwards have scored at least twice at five-on-five in the postseason, and none of them are named Patrice Bergeron, who has done most of his sniping (four of five goals) on the power play.
David Pastrnak has vacillated between Boston’s second line and his usual perch on Bergeron’s right wing, but no matter where he plays, he’s found the net (team-high six goals). David Krejci leads the Bruins with nine points at even strength, while Brad Marchand has paced the club with 13 points amid his spats with Columbus defenseman Scott Harrington and Sportsnet reporter Kyle Bukauskas.
One player whose fortune is probably due to improve is Jake DeBrusk, who has scored only twice on 40 shots (a 5 percent success rate) after potting 27 goals on a 17.3 shooting percentage during the regular season.
Hurricanes: Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Jordan Staal are all producing like stars – together they’ve scored 14 of Carolina’s 34 goals – and rookie winger Warren Foegele has thrived in third-line minutes with five goals and nine points of his own.
Like Boston, Carolina is hoping to get more out of a typically dependable second-liner whose woeful shooting rate has him stuck in a slump. Nino Niederreiter has scored just once on 23 shots (4.3 percent) despite creating 15 quality scoring chances, which is second on the team behind Teravainen.
Micheal Ferland, Carolina’s fourth-leading scorer this season, is expected to return from the upper-body injury he sustained in the first round, and rookie Andrei Svechnikov, who’s healthy again after Alex Ovechkin concussed him in a fight, should finally get the chance to showcase his considerable skill over a full series.
Edge: Bruins. Both teams have star power and depth, but Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak are peerless when they’re clicking. They all finished in the top 10 in points per game this year and are capable of winning Boston a game or two practically on their own during any series.
Bruins: With a back end that blends size, skill, youth, and experience, Boston – a perennially strong Corsi team, just like Carolina – can rely on its defense to move the puck and help drive the offense. Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo log tough minutes, Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk each have four points on the power play, and Charlie McAvoy has evolved into a No. 1 defenseman at just 21 years old.
A sample of McAvoy’s stats against Columbus – he played 25:36 per game and contributed three assists, and Boston had 57.39 percent of scoring chances when he was on the ice at five-on-five – demonstrates how much he’ll be missed in Game 1 as he serves a suspension for shouldering Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson in the head.
Hurricanes: Jaccob Slavin has emerged as a star in his fourth NHL season and first taste of the playoffs. Playing a team-high 26:36 per game, his 11 points (all of them assists) tie him with St. Louis blue-liner Alex Pietrangelo for third most among defensemen in the postseason, trailing only San Jose’s Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson.
Every Canes defenseman has been a positive Corsi player in the playoffs. Dougie Hamilton has scored three goals, two of which came on the power play, and Justin Faulk has looked impressive in his 25:54 of average ice time.
Haydn Fleury, Carolina’s No. 6 blue-liner, embodies one minor concern. With Trevor van Riemsdyk sidelined after shoulder surgery, Canes head coach Rod Brind’Amour has been willing to play Fleury only around seven minutes per game, fewer than every other defenseman in the playoffs. Can the rest of the unit continue to handle the increased load?
Edge: Hurricanes. Slavin could easily distinguish himself as the top defenseman in the series even after McAvoy returns from his banishment.
Bruins: It would be more than fair to consider Tuukka Rask the best netminder left in the playoffs. He’s authored a remarkable turnaround from what, by his standards, was a so-so regular season.
Shorthanded goals were his Achilles’ heel this year, but he’s let in only one through 13 games while posting a .944 save percentage at even strength (and .938 across all situations). Goals saved above average (GSAA), a metric that melds average save percentage across the league with the number of shots a goalie faces, rates Rask leaps and bounds higher than the rest of his class: His playoff GSAA figure is 8.09, with Dallas’ Ben Bishop next at 6.14.
Hurricanes: Rask’s Carolina counterparts, Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, have combined to post a combined 0.6 GSAA, but that number is skewed by Mrazek’s poor showing against the Capitals in Round 1. Mrazek had allowed just one goal (a power-play tally) to the Islanders when he hurt his lower body in Game 2 and relinquished the crease to McElhinney, who turned aside 71 of the 75 shots fired his way during the rest of the series.
It’s still unclear if Mrazek will be healthy enough to dress for Game 1. Even if he does, Brind’Amour might opt to let McElhinney try to prolong his hot streak. Twenty-two of the Islanders’ shots against McElhinney were quality chances and he saved all but one – a mark that could be seen as either extremely promising or sure to regress.
Edge: Bruins. Setting aside the question of whether Mrazek or McElhinney gets the nod to start, neither has shown he can consistently perform at the level Rask has achieved in the past month.
Bruins: Marchand and Bergeron haven’t played like world-beaters at even strength, but they’ve been lethal on the power play with a combined five goals (four from Bergeron). Boston has scored 10 power-play markers on 35 tries (an NHL-best 28.6 percent) and killed 31 of 37 penalties (83.8 percent).
Hurricanes: The bad news is that Carolina’s penalty kill is operating at a feeble 75 percent (nine goals allowed). The worse news is the Hurricanes’ power play has scored all of four goals on 38 opportunities (10.5 percent), including a seven-game goalless drought they finally snapped in Game 4 against the Islanders.
Edge: Bruins. The numbers don’t lie, and they should be a major worry for Brind’Amour and Co.
Bruins: First-line scoring. Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak could make matters simple and hasten the arrival of Carolina’s offseason by producing to their potential.
Hurricanes: Goaltending. It’s a big if, but if either Mrazek or McElhinney can outperform Rask, the conference title could be Carolina’s for the taking.
Bruins in six. What a story it would be if this “bunch of jerks” surge all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. They’ll keep the series close and could even send it back to Boston tied at two games apiece, but it seems smarter to bank on Marchand, Bergeron, Pastrnak, and Rask uniting to lead the Bruins to their third final in nine years.
|Game 1||Thurs. May 9||at Boston||8 p.m. ET|
|Game 2||Sun. May 12||at Boston||3 p.m. ET|
|Game 3||Tues. May 14||at Carolina||8 p.m. ET|
|Game 4||Thurs. May 16||at Carolina||8 p.m. ET|
|Game 5*||Sat. May 18||at Boston||7:15 p.m. ET|
|Game 6*||Mon. May 20||at Carolina||8 p.m. ET|
|Game 7*||Wed. May 22||at Boston||8 p.m. ET|
|* if necessary|
Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.
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