Bruins Playoff Hopes Hinge on Fundamental Hockey

The Boston Bruins are down two games to none in their best-of-seven game series against the Carolina Hurricanes. With the series going back to Boston on Friday, the Bruins are certainly feeling the pressure to do something of note in Game 3 to avoid going down 0-3 to one of the NHL’s best squads.

Bruce Cassidy, head coach of the Boston Bruins
Bruce Cassidy, head coach of the Boston Bruins, will need to get his team back to basics if they want to beat the Carolina Hurricanes in their first-round playoff matchup. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Through the first two games, the Bruins have been outscored 10-3 and have allowed five goals in each contest. It’s hard to pin the blame on goaltender Linus Ullmark, however, as he’s been on the wrong end of some unenviable situations. Goals have come off of tips, screens and multiple five-on-three power-play and it’s clear that luck just hasn’t been in his favor thus far. Despite this, the Bruins will turn to Jeremy Swayman to take over the crease Friday in a must-win situation. If nothing else, it’ll give Ullmark a chance to regroup and ideally cause some sort of ripple effect throughout the team.

That means that the team has to dig deep and get back to basics and help their goalies–regardless of who is in the crease. First and foremost, this starts with the Bruins converting on their opportunities and scoring goals.

It’s the most basic concept, but the Bruins have seemingly hit a wall and have been unable to consistently put the puck in the back of the net as of late. It’s also not like the Bruins are playing elite-level goaltending right now either, especially considering the Hurricanes are without starting netminder Frederik Andersen due to injury.

Bruins Unable To Beat Hurricanes Goaltending

In his place, the Hurricanes have rolled out a duo of Antti Raanta and Pyotr Kochetkov. The pairing had zero playoff starts between them heading into this series and the Bruins were primed to capitalize on this and produce some offense against a team they’ve struggled mightily with this season. Heading into the playoffs, the Bruins had dropped all three regular-season games against the Hurricanes and were outscored 16-1.

Unfortunately, the Bruins didn’t capitalize on this goaltending situation and Raanta has looked like the best goalie in the world through his first two starts of the series, putting together a .976 save percentage and 0.89 goals-against average in roughly 68 minutes of action. With Raanta being forced to leave Wednesday’s game due to injury early in the first period, however, the Hurricanes were then forced to turn to their rookie netminder in Kochetkov.

Tasked with beating a 22-year-old netminder who only had three games of NHL experience entering his first playoff game in a relief effort, the Bruins were only able to score two goals on 32 shots. To say this was disappointing would be an understatement, and it’s a testament both to the Hurricanes’ ability to defend with pressure and the Bruins’ inability to play their brand of hockey.

Fundamental Hockey Has Been an Issue for the Bruins

While the scoring has been an issue and both teams can argue that officiating has been polarizing–a reality that every fanbase in the NHL knows all too well, a bigger issue for the Bruins has been the inability to play sound fundamental hockey for a full 60 minutes.

Whether it’s playing at even strength, short-handed or even the penalty kill, the Bruins have been unable to play their brand of hockey for any extended amount of time this series. The Bruins have won under 45% of their faceoffs in this series with Patrice Bergeron winning 40% of his draws in each of the first two games. From the very start of each play, the Bruins have been playing uncharacteristically poorly.

Patrice Bergeron Boston Bruins
Patrice Bergeron will need to find his groove at the faceoff dot for the Boston Bruins heading into Game 3 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Beyond that, the Bruins have been unable to develop a cycle game in the way that they’ve typically found success and a lot of that comes down to zone entries. The Hurricanes play with a lot of pressure and make it difficult to simply carry the puck into the zone consistently. Though the Bruins have slowly started to adapt and dump the puck in, they’re still failing to put anything together in the offensive zone.

Sloppy puck retrieval and the inability to win battles along the boards have limited the Bruins’ chances and created opportunities the other way for their opposition.

As far as the power play is concerned, the Bruins have struggled for roughly a month now. The team would go 39 straight attempts without a power-play goal before finally converting on some looks to close out the regular season. Though it seemed like this may be a turning point for the Bruins, their power play has faltered once again in the playoffs. Converting just once on eight looks so far against the best penalty-killing team in the NHL, the Bruins are going to need more out of their team when playing with an advantage as it’s the only way to beat a team as well-rounded and dominant as this Hurricanes squad.

The Bruins’ penalty kill has actually performed well given the circumstances. Killing off 11 out of their 13 penalties, included in that list are some five-on-three opportunities for Carolina, the Bruins have been able to mitigate damage in that way. The issue isn’t that the penalty kill has struggled, it’s that the team has been forced to play shorthanded for so much of these games.

Related: Bruins Lacking Discipline & Finishing in Game 2 Loss to the Hurricanes

Taking nine penalties is brutal for a team to come back from. Not only are they losing time to score, in theory, but they’re also forcing key players to tire themselves out in situations they wouldn’t otherwise be in had they stayed out of the box.

If all of this seems very negative, it’s because there has been very little to be positive about when it comes to how the Bruins have performed in the series. But that can change if the Bruins simply change the way they’re approaching the situation.

Bruins Can Still Win Series Against Hurricanes

The Bruins don’t need to play “hero ball” to win this series. Plenty of teams have come back from a 2-0 series deficit and won a playoff series. The Bruins, in fact, did so twice in their 2011 Stanley Cup-winning season. They would do so once against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round and then again in the Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks. The Bruins certainly aren’t down and out yet, but losing Game 3 would create a nearly insurmountable hole for them to try and escape.

The Bruins need to get back to basics. It’s unlikely that Bergeron continues to struggle to this degree at the faceoff dot for the duration of this series, so things should level out. Beyond that, they’ll need to gameplan around the way the Hurricanes have defended entries and attacked the puck in all three zones. It’s easier said than done, but that’s part of playing professional sports; adjusting to what the opposition is doing in pregame planning in addition to on-the-fly adjustments in-game.

The Bruins will enter the game with Mike Reilly filling in for an injured Hampus Lindholm and Chris Wagner subbing in on the team’s fourth line in place of Thomas Nosek who will be taking Trent Frederic’s spot on the third line. Frederic will be a scratch for Game 3.

Hampus Lindholm Boston Bruins
Hampus Lindholm will miss Game 3 after suffering an injury in Game 2 of the Boston Bruins playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Staying out of the box will obviously be a huge factor for the Bruins as they’ll need to keep their best players fresh while also limiting the Hurricanes’ opportunities throughout the rest of the series. Again, it’s easier said than done in some situations, but playing disciplined hockey and not letting the between-the-whistle scrums get out of hand will be imperative to this.

As far as scoring is concerned, the Bruins know how to put the puck in the back of the net. Despite their struggles to close out the season, they’d still finish with the 15th-highest-scoring offense and power-play percentage in the NHL. Being somewhere in the middle of the pack may not seem optimal, but it’s also fair to say that a lack of production late definitely affected this number as a whole.

Beyond that, the Bruins just have to take a page out of the Hurricanes’ playbook and take advantage of screens and tips in close to beat whoever is in net for Carolina for the rest of this series. They got a taste of that Wednesday when Bergeron would score his second goal of the game off of a deflection in front of the net. It’s a winning strategy and it comes back down to fundamental hockey and simply taking what the other team is giving them.

The remainder of this first-round series will undoubtedly be an uphill battle for the Bruins. Still, it isn’t an impossible task and the Bruins absolutely have the chance to change the momentum of the series in front of their home crowd at the TD Garden in Boston.

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