Last year’s Eastern Conference finals looked like a breeze for the Bruins, who blew out the not-ready-for-prime-time Hurricanes in four straight games.
The ‘Canes looked desperate as the games went on, changing goalies in Game 3 and admitting they were out of answers by the end of the series. They couldn’t handle the Bruins’ top line, which popped off for all four Boston goals in a clinching Game 4 shutout.
The first-round Boston-Carolina series that begins Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto appears similar — the Hurricanes’ young legs against the veteran, balanced Bruins — but the five-month pause has made everyone question what they know about these teams.
While the Bruins looked unimpressive in the round-robin, losing all three games, the ‘Canes quickly dispatched a lesser Rangers team in the play-in round, earning a playoff ticket and week’s rest inside the Toronto bubble.
Here are some of the factors that could swing this series:
· How much has Carolina’s top line grown?
In the second period of Game 3 last year, then-rookie winger Andrei Svechnikov had the tying goal on his stick. Tuukka Rask was down. The net was open. After a furious and fruitless push in the first period, Svechnikov could have given his team hope.
He flung a shot well wide of the cage.
Svechnikov, the second overall pick in 2018, is on his way to stardom. Linemates Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are there. The line produced 7-8—15 in three games against the Rangers.
The Bruins are a different animal. But Carolina captain Jordan Staal, praising “the big Russian mule beside me,” believes Svechnikov & Co. are ready to attack.
“He’s hunting pucks, he’s playing physical, he’s got an absolute laser of a shot,” Staal said. “[Aho’s] very similar with hunting the puck and creating turnovers, with his speed, skill, hands, vision. [Teravainen’s] one of the most talented players I’ve played with when he has the puck. Man, he sees the ice so well and creates plays and really just finds holes you wouldn’t see when you’re sitting up top.”
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy sees a “really well-connected” unit, comparing them to his own top trio.
“They don’t need a lot of time to find each other,” he said. “Seem to have that sixth sense on the ice of where they’re going to be.”
· How rusty are the Bruins?
Patrice Bergeron, who turned 35 during the pause, produced the only point for the Bruins’ No. 1 unit in the round-robin (an assist). He and linemates Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, despite a combined 27 shots on goal, were held off the scoreboard.
Marchand said he had his legs, and his hands are catching up.
“Those were preseason games,” he said. “Let’s call it what it is.”
· What will the Bruins get from Zdeno Chara?
The 43-year-old captain is a valuable penalty killer and tone-setter. He was not at his sharpest in the round-robin.
At five on five, the Bruins allowed 52 shot attempts and produced 39 when Chara was on the ice. Of defensemen who played at least 45 minutes in the qualifying round, Chara’s Corsi For percentage (42.86) was eighth-worst in the NHL, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Chara was similarly underwater last postseason (46.8), but the Bruins had a positive goal differential (17-14) when he was on the ice. In the last three games, the Bruins were outscored, 3-1, with Chara on the ice.
· Who will get inside?
Carolina scored four goals at five on five in last year’s series. None of those goals were from the high-danger areas of the ice (the slot and area around the net).
The Hurricanes scored four high-danger goals against the Rangers, two each in the last two games. They allowed two.
“I don’t know if they’ll be more effective,” Cassidy said. “They’ll have to work hard to get in there. That’s pretty straightforward. It’s a will game at this time of year. Our guys are pretty good at it.”
Meanwhile, the Bruins had little trouble accessing the paint last year. They scored at least one high-danger goal in each of the four games (and three of them in Game 2). They had 42 high-danger shot attempts. They limited the Hurricanes to 24.
Large in that effort were Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug, who are likely to see a lot of the Svechnikov-Aho-Teravainen line. In last year’s playoffs, Carlo saw a steady diet of the opposition’s best forwards — Auston Matthews, Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois — on the way to the East final. In that series, Carlo faced Aho and Teravainen more than any other Carolina forwards; a greener Svechnikov was less of a concern.
· Is Carolina’s D a game-changer?
The ‘Canes may start the series without Dougie Hamilton, who was in the mix for the Norris Trophy when he broke his leg in January. He sustained another undisclosed injury last month. Coach Rod Brind’Amour was noncommittal about his return date.
Even sans Hamilton and Brett Pesce (unlikely to play in this series), the Carolina six-pack is dynamic. Jaccob Slavin is one of the league’s best defenders. Brady Skjei and ex-Blue Joel Edmundson like the rough stuff. Sami Vatanen and Jake Gardiner can move the puck.
“They like to go low to high a lot,” Cassidy said. “A lot of action from back there, so we have to make sure we’re fronting pucks, blocking shots, doing all the little things necessary and then getting under sticks as pucks get by our first layer. That’ll be the challenge for us. We need to be up to it.”
· Special teams extra special, or not so much?
Brind’Amour put some extra BBQ sauce on the Bruins’ brisket Monday.
“They all defend,” he said. “When they do have an occasional breakdown, they have great goaltending. They have the secret to success, for sure. Play the right way, and then their special teams are super special. When you have that cooking for you, it’s a good recipe.”
They were smoking last year. The Bruins were 7 for 15 on the power play in the Carolina series. They were 0 for 9 in the round-robin.
“Helped us a lot,” Cassidy said, calling it “a big X-factor in this series. That’s something that is a bit of an unknown.
“In the round-robin, we didn’t have a lot of success on it. We didn’t have a lot of opportunity to build it, especially with certain guys out of the lineup in practice.”
Penalty killing wasn’t an issue last year (13 of 14 in the Canes series) or in the round-robin (5 for 6).
· Will Rask dominate again?
The Bruins netminder was taller than the Carolina hills last May. He made 35 saves in Game 3, including 20 in a first period in which the ‘Canes threw everything his way. He pitched a shutout in Game 4.
Rask ended the round-robin well enough (five goals on 60 shots, .917), but was missing from Monday’s practice. Is he ready for a long run, or will Jaroslav Halak get a start?
“We’ll see how it goes,” Cassidy said. “Again, coming into this with those unknowns. How is Tuukka going to recover? We haven’t played a lot of hockey; does that help him as he’s more fresh, or does he need more time in between because he [hasn’t played] a lot?
“He’s looked sharp, I think, the last two games. He’s tracking pucks well. He’s seeing the puck. I thought his puck play was pretty good the other night in terms of helping the breakout at times when we were under duress. It tells me he’s engaged in the game. Like I said, I like where his game is at right now.”
Carolina, which turned to Curtis McElhinney last year after Petr Mrazek surrendered 10 goals in the first two games, has Mrazek and James Reimer at the ready. Brind’Amour said he plans to use both.
· Whose new additions provide the most value?
The Bruins are hopeful Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie, brought here in separate February trades with Anaheim, will help take some of the load off the top line. But neither has traction, Kase entering the lineup Sunday for his first action in five months. It is critical that Kase clicks with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk on the second line.
The ‘Canes added three complementary pieces at the trade deadline — second-line center Vincent Trocheck, power-play quarterback Vatanen, and second-pair defenseman Skjei — and have Vatanen running their power play. He had three assists in three games. Trocheck was held off the scoresheet last round.