Bruins’ First-Round Opponent Preference: Hurricanes or Maple Leafs

The Boston Bruins are in the playoffs. That much is guaranteed. Who they will play remains to be seen, but the first hurdle has been cleared, the team will be competing for the Stanley Cup.

As it sits today, the Bruins would occupy the first wild card spot and match-up against the Carolina Hurricanes. There is still a chance the Bruins can swap places with the Tampa Bay Lightning to grab the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division and create an Original Six matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs. No playoff opponent is easy, but there is a clear preference between these two teams. The Bruins should hope, pray, and do anything in their power to set up a date with Toronto rather than the Hurricanes.

Why the Toronto Maple Leafs?

It may seem strange to prefer to play a team who put up six goals and dominated play against the Bruins. I’m so glad you brought up that March 29 game at TD Garden. It seemed like the Bruins were altogether uninspired, unimpressive, and uninterested for the majority of that game. After spotting Toronto a 6-1 lead, the writing was on the wall; it wouldn’t be the Bruins’ night. Even still, the team managed a late push, bringing the deficit to two goals before running out of time. One game does not make a season or indicate how a series will go, but I’d argue this game does highlight vulnerabilities in Toronto’s game that the Bruins can exploit.

First and foremost, the goalie crease in Toronto is a tenuous position at best. Jack Campbell is a lovable character who has shown periods of dominance, but he has never strung together a full season of success. His best season, 2020-21, saw him make 22 starts, post a 2.15 goals-against average (GAA), and a .921 save percentage (SV%). Very, very strong numbers for a goalie who was expected to be the backup. Now this season, in 46 starts, Campbell has a 2.70 GAA and .913 SV%. Much less intimidating numbers.

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As an unbiased fan, I can admit Campbell had a sterling postseason last year during his only playoff experience. Although Toronto lost in the first round (more on this in a second), he posted a 1.81 GAA and .934 SV%, which are both admirable numbers. But, to play devil’s advocate now, those numbers were with half of the workload he has faced this season as he shared the net with Frederik Andersen in a goalie tandem last season. Fatigue is a real concern and it remains to be seen if he can put together another strong performance to alleviate the concerns that his showing last season may have been a flash in the pan.

Behind Campbell, Toronto’s goaltending is even shakier. Rookie Erik Kallgren currently occupies the backup position with Petr Mrazek on injured reserve, incidentally enough, from the game against the Bruins on March 29. In Kallgren, the Maple Leafs have a goalie with a whopping 13 career games played, posting a pedestrian 3.42 GAA and few steps below pedestrian .886 SV%. Safe to say, these numbers are not worrying opponents.

Related: 3 Bruins’ 2022 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

A final note on Toronto has no empirical evidence to support it, but this team has had a string of bad luck in the playoffs. The Bruins have seemingly owned the Leafs for the past decade, regularly meeting in the first round, and Boston routinely charges back to win the series, regardless of the improbable bounces along the way. Even last year, when Toronto seemed to finally have a Stanley Cup team, were realigned into the “North” Division with the other Canadian clubs, and would not have to play teams like the Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning until a semi-final round, the Maple Leafs managed to stumble and blow a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadians.

This is a new team, with more experience, and a stronger regular season, sure, but until they show me they have exorcised their demons, I will have a level of (possibly unjustified) confidence in the Bruins heading into any series against Toronto.

Why Not the Carolina Hurricanes?

The Hurricanes are looking more and more likely to be the Bruins’ first-round draw. That’s not great. For the confidence I have about the Black and Gold playing the Maple Leafs, I have nearly the same amount of pessimism about the Bruins matching up against the Canes.

Following the model above, Carolina is firmly set in net. While the team uses a tandem of Antti Ranta and Frederik Andersen, Andersen is the clear No. 1 and will be between the pipes for Game 1 if he is fully healthy. This season, he is chugging along to the tune of a 2.17 GAA and .922 SV%, both stats that have him actively in the running for the Vezina Trophy.

Frederik Andersen Carolina Hurricanes
Frederik Andersen, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Andersen also has seven different trips to the playoffs. Granted, four of those came with Toronto, and as explained, that means he only played one round, but there is something to be said for a goalie who knows what playoff hockey looks like over multiple trips. Also, as about to be examined, the team defense of Toronto and the team defense of Carolina are strikingly different.

Let’s talk about that team defense now. The Hurricanes lead the league in goals against per game. The. Entire. League. For a game that is determined based off of who can score more, I think it is safe to say playing the team who allows the fewest goals is less than ideal. For reference, the Bruins are fourth in the league and Toronto is 19th in the league.

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If you’ve read other articles I’ve written, you know I love to point out how important special teams are during the playoffs. When the games become tight-checking, close-to-the-vest affairs as playoff hockey generally does, having an extra skater is where teams can find victories and chase a title. All this lead up is a good sign, right? Nope, wrong. Carolina leads the league in penalty-kill percentage at 87.8 percent. That is after a string of rough performances lowering their percentage from where it has been much of the season near 90 percent. There isn’t much more to say about this torrid pace the Hurricanes’ penalty kill has been on other than to admit it is historic and will be a nightmare to try and crack in the playoffs.

Finally, Carolina is an absurdly deep team. Of the skaters on their roster, only two players don’t have double-digit point totals. The first of those players is Brendan Smith, a depth defensive-defenseman and tough guy who has seven points in 43 games. The other player is Max Domi, who was acquired at the trade deadline. He also has seven points in 17 games. This depth scoring, coupled with the commitment to team defense, is what makes Carolina such a concerning opponent. They can match-up with teams in any style – fast, physical, high-flying, possession-based – and while their star power may not match the Bruins, they have given the team fits all season. In three games head-to-head, Carolina is 3-0, with 16 goals scored, and one allowed… can’t stress this enough, it’s not great!

So, Now What for the Bruins?

If the playoffs line up as expected and the Bruins play the first round against the Hurricanes, is it all over? For as negative as I am to the match-up, and while I would be more confident in placing a bet on a Bruins round win if the games were against Toronto, I do think they have a shot against Carolina. It will be tough, and I might hold off on placing any bets, but it should be an entertaining series. With the Bruins regaining their health and allowing some players to rest, they will be entering the playoffs in as good of shape as any team.

There may be some slight roster questions: who fills out the third pair, what does the fourth line look like, is Trent Frederic trusted to remain in the lineup, has Linus Ullmark shaken off the rust to seize the net? These questions will all have to be answered, but this Bruins team is solid. Any series will be a battle, but no series will be a cake walk. For as fearsome as Carolina can be, there are plenty of teams who view the Bruins the same way, which provides some solace. This is all to say, the world isn’t ending if the Bruins match-up with the Hurricanes, but, if you have any tips or tricks for magnifying luck, let’s all do what we can to will the Bruins into the third spot in the Atlantic and a date with the Maple Leafs.

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