RALEIGH, N.C. — From the white K95 facemask still covering the face of an exhausted Charlie McAvoy to the reserved, respectful words coming from the mouth of a usually animated Brad Marchand, one thing was very obvious in the aftermath of the Bruins’ 5-1 blowout at the hands of the Hurricanes Tuesday.
They can’t wait to get home, away from their hockey house of horrors otherwise known as PNC Arena.
One thing less obvious? How McAvoy managed to make it back on the ice a mere two days after being placed in COVID-19 protocol, a return that seemed to skirt the NHL’s policy of a five-day quarantine from the first day of showing symptoms. Logical questions around McAvoy’s timeline stemmed from the fact he played last Friday’s Game 3 at TD Garden and practiced with the team Saturday, and then was ruled out of Sunday’s Game 4, also at home. That would make it appear his symptoms began Sunday, which seemed to leave his earliest return possible by Thursday.
But there the defenseman was Tuesday night, having joined the team via private jet earlier in the day, logging his customary team-high minutes (25:14) despite admitting he’d been down with symptoms and definitely felt tired. Those admissions left more answers than questions, however, considering McAvoy declined to say anything specific about when he first felt ill, having opened his short postgame interview session with a request to “leave it in the past” and “just talk about the game.”
Talk of the game was a subject that didn’t bring much joy either, nor much clarity. What it does leave is a team facing elimination and banking on the hope that TD Garden ice awaits them like a welcoming hug, offering hope and respite from the Carolina black hole that somehow turns the hard-skating, aggressive team we watched win Games 3 and 4 at home into a mistake-prone, tentative road team that can’t seem to get out of its own way.
Which is why it’s impossible not to think of the bigger question: Even if the Bruins morph back into home warriors, what then?
“It seems like they’ve got our number here,” McAvoy said, “but we’re able to go home now. And we’ve got to take care of Game 6 before we can even look towards coming back here.”
History tells us Game 5 is the truest indicator of who is going to win a series, and the Bruins’ no-show just makes it feel inevitable the Hurricanes will get the last laugh, if only because they get to have it at home. Not that the Bruins wouldn’t gladly take one more trip into their personal torture chamber, with the full understanding that’s the only alternative to an early offseason. But they also know what awaits them. Winning this series was always going to require a road win, but this road team has gotten worse over the course of the series, not better, and that’s never good for a team’s confidence.
“It’s a tough building to play in,” Marchand conceded. “They feed off a lot of the emotion they get from the crowd. They enjoy playing here. You can see it in their game, the way they are with the fans and everything, you can see that they enjoy playing in this building. They feed off that energy.
“They get pretty good matchups at home so that all plays a part. But they’re just a good team. You can’t discredit them. They play extremely hard, they play fast. We knew it was going to be a tough series. They’re a great team and they’re competing hard out there. Give them some credit.”
Series villain Tony DeAngelo had a goal and two assists, and a reenergized Antti Raanta stopped 33 of 34 shots to turn this one into a laugher. Raanta’s best and most important work came early in the game, when he made it clear that even an early aggressive start by the Bruins would go for naught. With nervy stops on point-blank chances by Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, Raanta set the stage for the early breaks to go Carolina’s way.
Like taking advantage of Jeremy Swayman’s clumsy first-period save attempt that allowed Jaccob Slavin’s shot to dribble over the line, giving Carolina the lead for the fifth time in five games this series. Like leaving DeAngelo alone up top on a power play later in the period, letting him set up for a long, hard shot that would weave its way through three Bruins defenders, a 2-0 lead that might as well have been 20-0.
As DeAngelo pumped his fist in celebration and a sea of red-clad fans waved their giveaway white towels, it was the building itself that thrummed as if alive, pouring its sound down onto the ice, loud enough to swallow the blaring horn signifying the goal, long enough to remind the Bruins just how much they don’t like playing here.
“So far it’s been a homer series, and we’d like to continue that for now,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “The Garden’s been good to us this series. The guys need to be motivated to play. If we don’t play well it’s over. That’s it. That’s all.”
If they do play well it’s not over. It’s Game 7 time. But that means going back to Carolina, to the loud and raucous arena that added insult to insult by piping “Sweet Caroline” through the rafters as the final minutes ticked down.
Sure, the Bruins will take it. But is there any chance they can win it?
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.