A drubbing, a thrashing, a pummelling, a pounding, a walloping, a thumping, a complete-and-utter domination.
Say it whichever way you like, but the Eastern Conference final was about as one-sided as they come. Through four games, the Bruins skated all over the Carolina Hurricanes, out-scored their third-round rivals by a dozen goals and completed the sweep in tidy fashion, with a fitting 4-0 scoreline putting the Prince of Wales Trophy firmly in Boston’s grasp – figuratively, of course, because they didn’t touch the darn thing – and punching their ticket to the Stanley Cup final.
Truly, there were few points in the series when the conference final felt all that close, and even by Carolina coach Rob Brind’Amour’s estimation, there was really only the one game in which the Hurricanes came to play. Brind’Amour called the series-deciding Game 4 a “dud,” and after Game 3, the one outing in which Carolina looked especially dangerous, the first-year bench boss said that it was the first time all series the Hurricanes had actually given the Bruins something to think about. But that’s as much a criticism of Carolina’s play as it is praise for Boston’s performance. The Bruins put on a clinic against the Hurricanes.
Offensively, that was evident. Boston scored at a clip of more than four goals per game in the conference final, and the only outing in which they scored fewer than four was the aforementioned Game 3. The Bruins’ top players showed up, too. In Game 4, the trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were responsible for all four goals and finished the outing with eight combined points. As impressive as the offensive performances, though, was the defensive play of the group as a whole.
Entering the series, what Carolina had going for it was an ability to generate shots, shot attempts and scoring chances, and without true-blue superstar scoring power, it’s fair to say that it at times came down to quantity over quality for the Hurricanes. What Boston didn’t allow Carolina to do, however, was produce either. Through all four games, the Bruins controlled the middle of the ice and forced everything to the outside through both will and skill. They pressured perfectly to keep the Hurricanes to the edges, and when Carolina did get an opportunity to blast away or attempted to blast away and force something through, there were bodies in the way. Boston blocked 60 shots through four games and allowed a mere 107 shots against. That’s 26.8 per game against a Carolina outfit that was averaging 31.2 through the first two rounds.
The defensive effort paid dividends in a few ways. Primarily, it kept the Hurricanes off the board. But it also provided the insulation that allowed Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask to continue to shine through what has already been a remarkable post-season for the goaltender. Not only did he cap the series with a 24-save shutout, his second consecutive shutout in a series finale, but he posted a bonkers .956 save percentage and allowed a mere five goals against. Now, Rask has elevated his post-season totals even further. Entering the final, he’s posted a .942 SP and 1.84 goals-against average. Over his past seven games, all of which he’s won, Rask has a .961 SP.
But what makes the Bruins especially frightening as they head towards the final, their third in the past nine seasons, isn’t Rask’s play or the defensive buy-in and performance or the offensive excellence. It’s that all of those elements are coming together at exactly the right time, that everything is clicking just as the Bruins prepare to fight for their second Stanley Cup in the past decade. It gives this Boston group the feel of a snowball rolling down hill, one that’s gathering steam and ready to run over whoever comes next.
Think about it: at what point since the opening round, during which the Toronto Maple Leafs gave the Bruins legitimate problems and nearly stopped this run short before it began, has Boston shown any signs of slowing down? Yes, they trailed in second-round against the Blue Jackets at one point, but that was almost solely due to the play of Sergei Bobrovsky, who made 99 saves through the first three games and paced Columbus to a 2-1 series lead. Once the Bruins were able to break down Bobrovsky, though, the tide turned in a hurry. Boston rattled off three consecutive victories and outscored the Blue Jackets 11-4 in the process. Add that to the third-round performance and the Bruins are undefeated and have outscored opponents 28-9 across their past seven games.
Even the secondary elements are snapping into place, because for as good as Boston was at 5-on-5 against Carolina, the Bruins were even better on special teams. No team has really had an answer for Boston’s power play in the post-season, but they were especially prolific against Carolina, scoring seven times on 15 attempts, including the two goals that opened the scoring in Game 4 against the Hurricanes. The penalty kill was also near perfect, as Carolina connected once on 14 attempts in the conference final. All told, Boston enters the final with the top power play of any playoff team and a penalty kill bettered by no team left standing.
The same success can be seen in the underlying numbers, too. While the Bruins haven’t been the top team in shots or shot attempt percentages at five-a-side since the end of Round 1, what Boston boasts is the top scoring chances percentage, top high-danger chances percentage and the highest expected goals for percentage of any team that played beyond the opening round. That has translated to the actual offensive ouput. Boston leads all teams in goals for percentage at 5-on-5, as one might expect.
The Bruins don’t know yet who comes next, and given the way the first few games of the Western Conference final between the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues have gone, Boston might not know until that series goes the distance. But at this point, it might not matter. With the way they’ve played over the past few weeks, the Bruins look like a juggernaut that’s prepared to storm into the final and run right over whoever dares challenge them.
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