Asked in early April, before the puck dropped on the post-season, which two teams would be set to clash in the Eastern Conference final, those who picked both the Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes would have been few and far between.
But is the meeting really that unexpected? Yes, sure, the Bruins were never considered the frontrunners in the Atlantic Division, but that’s because no one was expected to topple the Tampa Bay Lightning. And yes, true, the Hurricanes were a wild-card team that snuck into the post-season, not a no-doubter that secured a divisional berth weeks before the end of the regular season. Truth be told, though, maybe we should have seen this coming.
From Jan. 1 onward, there were few teams as good as Boston and Carolina. In fact, entering the post-season, the only teams hotter than the Hurricanes were the Lightning and St. Louis Blues, whose respective 64- and 65-point totals from New Year’s Day onward were only narrowly more than the 62 accumulated by Carolina. Likewise, the Bruins were excellent in the back half of the campaign, their 61 points the fourth-best total in the NHL post-Jan. 1.
So, yes, on paper and in the bracketology, this isn’t a matchup many foresaw. Based on the two teams played down the stretch, though, we’re about to witness a battle of two of the league’s best second half clubs.
Just about any way you slice it, the Bruins enter the Eastern Conference final as the odds-on favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Boston finished the regular season with the best record and most points of any team left standing in the post-season. The Bruins have one of the most outstanding top trios in the NHL, a goaltender who is playing arguably his best hockey of the season at exactly the right time and Boston has proven itself to be one of the league’s best possession teams in the league throughout the regular season and playoffs. Plus, if you look at the team-to-beat as a transitive thing, the Bruins ousted the Columbus Blue Jackets, who swept the prohibitive pre-playoff Stanley Cup favorite Tampa Bay Lightning. Ipso facto, this is Boston’s crown to lose.
What will undoubtedly help the Bruins, too, is that the offense seems to be going at the right time. After some early series concern against Columbus that Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak weren’t able to get going, all three came to play in the back half of the second round. Bergeron contributed two goals and three points, Marchand chipping in one goal and four points and Pastrnak, whose absences from the scoresheet were becoming worrisome, led the way with three goals and four points, including a late and timely winner in Game 5. Add in the offensive impact David Krejci made and some surprising contributions from David Backes and Boston was able to put a bow on Round 2 in six games.
One worry, however, is what impact an opening tilt without the services of Charlie McAvoy will have on the series. McAvoy is the Bruins’ top defenseman and his one-game suspension means the defense pairings will need to be thrown into the blender somewhat. Boston has the horses to keep up with Carolina’s up-tempo possession style, but McAvoy is indisputably the blueliner who makes the rest of the back end tick. Luckily, it’s only one game and not more, which it very well could have been.
One final note: this is the Bruins’ third trip to the Eastern Conference final in the post-lockout era, and the third-round series has been kind to Boston in the past. Each of the past two appearances have ended with the Bruins punching their ticket to the Stanley Cup final. Now, they’ll attempt to go three-for-three.
X-Factor: With McAvoy sidelined, expect Brandon Carlo to see his workload increase in Game 1 of the series. But Carlo can be a difference maker beyond the opening game. The 22-year-old has had some excellent showings through the first two rounds, especially considering he’s taken a heavy slant of defensive zone starts. His first foray into the post-season has seen him draw tough assignments, too, including a steady dose of the Blue Jackets’ Artemi Panarin and Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews. Expect Carlo to be called upon to shut down a top talent once again.
The Hurricanes’ two series victories have taken them to different extremes. The first round was a seven-game slog against the Washington Capitals, one that went to double overtime before Brock McGinn buried the winner for Carolina. After that drawn out battle, though, the Hurricanes made quick work of the New York Islanders in the second round. Carolina went four up, four down and booked their spot in the Eastern Conference final.
Despite the contrasting paths to victory, though, the way the Hurricanes played in those matchups was awfully similar and it was reflective of what Carolina has done all season long. The Hurricanes played up-tempo, north-south hockey and excelled in generating shots, shot attempts, scoring chances and high-danger chances. Matter of fact, heading into the conference final, the Hurricanes lead all remaining playoff teams in Corsi percentage (56.5) and shots percentage (55.4) and trail only the Colorado Avalanche in scoring chances percentage (53.5) and high-danger chances percentage (54.5) at five-a-side. How has that impacted the Hurricanes’ game? Well, their 26 5-on-5 goals are more than any other post-season club and their goals percentage (65) is nearly 10 percent better than the second-best team that’s still standing, which just so happens to be the Bruins.
Carolina really needs to get going on the power play, however. Say what you will for capitalizing at even strength, the post-season can come down to making the most out of the opportunities that are presented, and the Hurricanes have been abysmal at doing so in the playoffs. They are currently operating at 10.5 percent with the man advantage, converting only four times on 38 attempts. It’s not as though life on the power play is about to get any easier, either, with the Bruins boasting an 83.8 percent penalty kill rate. That’s tops among remaining playoff teams.
Any offense Carolina can generate can go a long way, too. While Boston has the ability to score in bunches, they’ve yet to be matched up against a defense corps as top-to-bottom deep as that of the Hurricanes. In fact, the only team defense that has shown fewer cracks and allowed fewer goals against per game than Boston? That’s Carolina’s, which has also allowed only 27.8 shots against per game, as well.
X-Factor: The expectation after his four-goal, six-point output in the first round was that Warren Foegele would eventually slow down, that the heavy lifting would be taken over by Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen and Justin Williams and so on. And while Aho and Teravainen did indeed lead the attack with four and five points, respectively, Foegele hit the scoresheet in each of the final three games of the second-round tilt with the Islanders. His early third period goal was the equalizer that led to Nino Niederreiter’s game winner shortly thereafter before assisting on goals in Games 3 and 4. Depth scoring matters, and no one has provided more unexpected offense than Foegele this post-season.
Oct. 30, 2018 – BOS 3, CAR 2
Dec. 23, 2018 – CAR 5, BOS 3
March 5, 2019 – BOS 4, CAR 3 (OT)
Fan Favorite: Boston Bruins
THN Series Pick: Boston Bruins in six
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