The Bruins on Wednesday wrapped up their first-round playoff series against the Hurricanes, finding easier passage to Round 2 than probably anyone — player, coach, management, fan or hot dog vendor — could expect.
Keep in mind, for all the losses the Hurricanes’ lineup sustained over the last seven days, particularly the injury to budding superstar Alexei Svechnikov late in Game 3, the Bruins on Saturday lost Tuukka Rask.
Watching your franchise goalie, the winningest in franchise history, abruptly hotfoot it out the door typically is not a prescription for playoff success.
Repeat after your faithful puck chronicler: Mike Moffat. And once more with gusto: Blaine “Let ‘em in” Lacher. Resorting to goalie prayers come playoff time is typically an exercise in extinction.
Nonetheless, Round 1 ended in five games, and the Bruins are in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“First round, teams are hungry, they’re relatively healthy,” mused coach Bruce Cassidy, who saw the Hurricanes score the opening goal in three of the five games. “Carolina came in here feeling really good about their game after they swept the Rangers. You’ve got to be careful … make sure you are close to your game, but keep building it as you go along.”
Cassidy also made a vague reference to the loss of Rask when he noted overcoming ”adversity” related to “some of our personnel.”
“But you sort of keep the trains running on time, so to speak,” he added, “and do your job … our guys have really grasped that culture we have created here … and full value for this series win.”
This is normally the time of year we are talking about how a dearth of secondary scoring can be deadly for Stanley Cup dreams, or how a sputtering power play can be the toll road to playoff perdition.
Meh. None of that was a concern. The Bruins lost Rask after splitting the first two games, and they also were without top goal scorer David Pastrnak for Games 2, 3, and 4. Imagine, say, the Capitals forced into an identical revolting development with the loss of Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin. They’ve had both of those guys for the duration in Round 1 and still might get sent home by the Islanders with but one win in five games.
Now, will this less-is-more approach bode well for the Bruins now in the Round 1 afterlife? Here’s a bulletin: It all hinges on Jaroslav Halak. Shocker there, huh?
Pressed into No. 1 duty when Rask went rogue, Halak faced 99 shots over three games and turned back all but five, for a robust .949 save percentage and a 1.67 goals-against average. Magnificent numbers.
For a guy who hadn’t logged a real playoff game since 2015 (with Islanders), the 5-foot-11-inch Slovak stopper was immense. Had the Hurricanes been able to wring out similar from their Petr Mrazek-James Reimer tandem, this space instead would be devoted to key story lines headed into Game 6 on Thursday night.
Instead, the Hurricanes are toast, yet again, and the Bruins stand four wins from advancing to Edmonton for the Eastern Conference finals.
Halak, 35, is now 16-16 lifetime in the playoffs. His best run in the postseason was a 9-9 stint with the Canadiens 10 years ago. A decade later, no one should be expecting him to steal a series. He has to be at least OK, and everyone has to be better. He was less than average in Game 4, falling into a 2-0 deficit because he allowed a couple of softies to beat him to the glove side. Everyone else was better.
He was sharper in the Game 5 closer, but he also was scrambly on the very few times the Hurricanes put some pressure on his doorstep. Carolina showed no finish.
Keep in mind, the Hurricanes lost the dynamic Svechnikov in the waning moments of Game 3. Of the five goals they scored on Halak, only one, by Teuvo Teravainen, came from their A-list performers. Otherwise, it was Nino Niederreiter, the over-the-hill Justin Williams, Jordan Martinook, Haydn Fleury, and a cloud of dust. Top gun Sebastian Aho all but disappeared.
There is no other real option here for the Bruins. If Halak comes apart, or if he gets hurt, the fallback is Dan Vladar, a fourth-year pro who turns 23 on Thursday. He’s tall (6-5) and he has gone 33-26-3 in his stretches at AHL Providence. He also has zero NHL experience.
Given the heat of playoff hockey, he really isn’t an option. Right now, it’s Give ‘em Hell Halak or nothing.
Otherwise, large parts of the Bruins’ game improved over the five games.
Ondrej Kase emerged as an energetic, opportunistic option at right wing on the second line.
Charlie McAvoy‘s game had a huge growth spurt during the pandemic lockdown. He came back with more of a shot mentality, and his derriere decking of Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal was the centerpiece of a late, win-making four-goal run in Game 4.
Cassidy used David Krejci increasingly as an option on the No. 1 power play, in part because of Pastrnak’s three-game absence, and it was a delight to see him flash his oft-overlooked skills.
The fourth line, with Par Lindholm between Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner, consistently logged smart/gritty shifts. The No. 3 defense pairing of Matt Grzelcyk and Connor Clifton also made important contributions.
“I like our special teams,” said Cassidy, his power play going 5 for 19, and the penalty kill rubbing out 13 of 15. “Tonight, I thought were a little too [lackadaisical] at our blue line, allowing them to gain entry. But in-zone we were better with clears. Shooting lanes, we blocked shots when needed. I love that part. Right now, we are not getting five-on-five scoring we need on a regular basis, so you’ve got to find ways to win.
“I guess that’s the best way to put it — we found ways to win, probably different ways each game, with different people in the lineup, different goaltenders playing, so that was the best part of this first round.”
One round down and at least one more to go. Good start, with goaltending to determine the finish. Some truths even a pandemic can’t change.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.