Alright, folks – exhale.
Ahead of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, if you’ve been paying attention, anyway, you knew fans were in for an absolute treat. With eight teams in the Eastern Conference eclipsing the 100-point mark in the regular season, it looked like a whale of an opening-round without a bad matchup, save for maybe the colossal unit that is the Colorado Avalanche against the severely-banged-up Nashville Predators. Fans were not disappointed — what a first-round it was. The other seven series went at least six games, and five of them saw a decisive Game 7. This includes the Carolina Hurricanes, who got to experience a much-needed exorcism of demons, taking down a rival that had twice eliminated them from the postseason, in back-to-back years in 2019 and 2020, the Boston Bruins.
Despite the extremely lopsided 2021-22 regular-season results, the series was always destined to be a battle. Boston was going through considerable turmoil when the Hurricanes ran roughshod over them, as it was a season series that saw Carolina outscore the Bruins 16-1. Boston figured out who they were down the stretch, got healthy, added a top-four defenseman to stabilize their blue line at the trade deadline, re-discovered their identity, and came one win shy of flipping the script and sending the Hurricanes home after their best regular season in franchise history. Luckily, that eulogy doesn’t have to be given today. It would have been a tough pill to swallow for a ‘Canes team with the goods to make a very, very deep run this postseason.
Naturally, there were storylines galore to talk about in the series, and it would take me the next week to get into all of them. Which doesn’t seem prudent, as there is still a very, very long road to go to lift the hardest trophy to win in sports, and there will be much more to discuss regarding their next opponent this week. Though to be sure, the Hurricanes are going to have to clean up quite a few things in order to fulfill their potential. Areas like the power play, poor puck management at crucial times, and star players not really being at their best consistently are varying degrees of concern for the team’s prospects. However, today is a day of celebration, so those conversations can (and will) come if the issues persist. For now, fans can focus on the positives that have Rod Brind’Amour‘s squad moving on to the second round, once again.
Hurricanes Are Home Warriors and Defensive Stalwarts
When discussing this series, it is nigh-impossible to not talk about the extreme impact that home-ice advantage played. The home team won all seven games, and, except for the finale, none of the games were all that close. The reasoning for this is relatively straightforward: when Boston head coach Bruce Cassidy had last-change at home, one of the best shutdown forwards of all time in Patrice Bergeron was in Sebastian Aho’s grill, rendering the Hurricanes’ center pretty much useless. However, in Raleigh, Brind’Amour was able to counter Bergeron and Brad Marchand with his own shutdown line, thus freeing Aho and sidekick Seth Jarvis from the chains that were the Boston top line.
The difference in output was staggering. In Boston’s home games, Marchand was unstoppable, registering a whopping 10 points (four goals, six assists) in the three games. In Carolina, though, he was held to just one assist in four games. For Aho, he put up five points in four games in Carolina and was held off the scoresheet entirely in Boston. He did seem mildly banged up after the vicious collision with Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy in Game 6, which is another storyline to keep in mind moving forward; the Hurricanes will need their offensive leader to be at his best if they’re going to continue advancing, and he looked a few notches below that in the last two games of the series.
Jordan Staal registered four points in the series (two of those coming in Game 4 in Boston… when he was not matched up with the Bergeron line, interesting), which obviously isn’t some crazy number, but he was probably the Hurricanes’ best skater in the series. The wear and tear he puts on the opposition cannot be understated this time of year, and you could see it in the Bruins’ stars late in the series, especially in Game 7. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound horse just grinds, battles, bangs, and pounds his marks into submission, and the effect it had on this series was one of the biggest culprits in the Carolina victory. It’s a real weapon to have in your back pocket if you’re Brind’Amour, being able to roll a trio like the Staal, Nino Niederreiter, and Jesper Fast line against an opponent’s top line, and effectively have them removed from the game.
However, it’s hard to expect the Hurricanes to go perfect on home ice the entirety of the postseason. At some point, they’re going to need to formulate a better road game than they were able to in the opening round – and one of the most important areas for improvement is in the power play. It has been spoken about it in this space on many occasions, so I won’t linger on it now, but Carolina has to start making opponents pay for mistakes, especially on the road. Being able to quiet the crowd with a big power-play goal often swings momentum, and this is one reason the Bruins stuck around as long as it did in the first place. The Bruins’ power play made the Hurricanes pay for their lack of discipline. The ‘Canes man advantage routinely did not; in fact, it was often the source of Boston momentum, and easily could have cost them the series.
Overall, there are few units in hockey as effective as Boston’s top line at shutting things down defensively themselves, so you have to think Aho and company will be able to generate a lot more offense in road games moving forward. The next-round opponent, the New York Rangers, while an excellent hockey team, are arguably a better matchup for Carolina than the Bruins were because of this. They don’t possess the kind of lockdown defensive unit that Cassidy has at his disposal. We’ll dive further into that matchup as the week rolls on. However, the ability to protect home ice and the energy the incredible, raucous home crowd that fills up PNC Arena this time of year gives to the Hurricanes is a heck of an advantage, and will surely continue to play a big role in the Hurricanes’ postseason run.
Goalie Questions Answered, and Then Some
Before talking about the player I would probably give the first star of the series to, you have to show 22-year-old Pyotr Kochetkov some love. The way he came in after Pastrnak clobbered Antti Raanta in Game 2, went after Marchand after the pesky forward gave him a jab during a play, then put forth a Herculean, 30-save relief appearance in his first postseason game, was a massively important part of the series, especially in retrospect. His effort put the Hurricanes up 2-0 at the time, and, as close as the series eventually got, it was obviously a critical performance – not to mention a huge boost to his team, seeing the kid come in and play at that level.
Even his second start, in which he and the Hurricanes were beaten soundly at TD Garden, is hard to place on his shoulders. The team just, well, sort of stunk up there, y’know? This kid’s future is very, very bright, and this was but a mere glimpse of what his future could hold. If Frederik Andersen returns at some point in the near future, I cannot wait to see him lead the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League (AHL) on their own deep playoff run.
Speaking of Andersen, there still is not much in the way of an update. Guess what, though? The Hurricanes are undoubtedly feeling just fine because they have another stud between the pipes that was absolutely sensational in the opening round. His team should be brimming in confidence when he’s between the pipes, just like they were when their should-have-been-a-Vezina-finalist was healthy.
Raanta finished the series with a sparkling .927 save percentage (SV%) and 2.37 goals-against average (GAA), and made monster save after monster save throughout the series to keep the Hurricanes in it even when they weren’t at their best. In particular, it seemed that the Bruins often came out and carried the play early in Carolina’s home games, but there was Raanta to will the Hurricanes to get into the game by making his best saves in these moments. At PNC Arena, the Finnish backstop allowed just four goals on 115 shots, a .965 SV%.
The 33-year-old (who celebrated that most recent birthday the day of Game 6) former Arizona Coyote, Chicago Blackhawk, and Ranger had seen the net in just five playoff games entering 2021-22 – all relief appearances – and he’s ensured that his first go-round in the starting role was a memorable one. If that, along with his adorable daughter crashing his postgame press conference wasn’t enough to tug at your heart strings, how about this quote?
Knowing the way the last year has gone for Raanta makes it all the more easy to root for the netminder, and seeing the veteran’s interactions with many of the young players and his fellow countrymen has made him a fan favorite in Carolina. How can you not love seeing one of hockey’s genuine, good guys have a moment like this, in the spotlight, carrying this high-flying team in the postseason while their starting goalie is on the shelf? Raanta deserves every bit of the praise he’s receiving league-wide right now, and he and Kochetkov have proved that, behind a stacked defense, the question mark between the pipes is actually a strength – regardless of which of the three guys is in it.
A Balanced Hurricanes Attack is a Dangerous Hurricanes Attack
Now, on one hand, Aho probably wasn’t at his best, generally speaking, in the series, Teuvo Teravainen was excellent defensively, per usual, but fought the puck more than we’re accustomed to seeing for stretches, and Andrei Svechnikov’s best game actually came in a loss. Teravainen was spectacular in Game 7, though, and if you know how the other two stars are wired, you’re not stressing about them moving forward. Those guys are too good, and too competitive, for the struggles to continue, and I fully expect both to have big series in round two. Hopefully Aho is able to heal up over the next couple days as much as possible, but otherwise there’s often nothing that can be done to stop him.
The struggles extended beyond that, though, as Jesperi Kotkaniemi was held off the scoresheet and seemed to be gripping the stick too tight, Brady Skjei was quiet after a career year offensively, and Nino Niederreiter had just one assist in the last five games after scoring thrice in the first two games. But that’s the beauty of this team. One guy struggles? No matter, two, three, four others step up and carry the torch. Game 7 was the Max Domi game, with the forward matching his goal scoring output (two) from his first 25 games with the organization, since his acquisition at the deadline. He added a beautiful assist on Teravainen’s opening goal late in the first period that provided a huge momentum swing for the team, and was generally buzzing and playing the pace that made him an attractive target in the first place.
If you watched the series preview I did with my colleagues Matthew Zator and Bruins writer Scott Roche, you knew we were excited to see Jarvis play in this playoff environment. He’s small, but the elite competitiveness, along with his skill level, made him my pick for Carolina’s X-factor in the series. It’s fun to actually get a prediction right for once! Jarvis was arguably Carolina’s most consistently dangerous forward, picking up five points in the series. As many times as Brind’Amour has treated young players with kid gloves (see: Svechnikov’s rookie year on the fourth line), it’s telling to see Jarvis not only get elevated to the top line and stick but straight-up thrive at the biggest time of the year. Heck, at this point, he may not be moving from that RW1 spot for… well, years.
Many others played key roles too, but, the overall point being, all year long the Hurricanes’ depth has been a big story, and it’s showing through in a huge way so far in the playoffs.
A sort-of funny note about this is, you know who the team’s two leading scorers were? That would have been their top defensive pair, Jaccob Slavin and Tony DeAngelo, tied with eight points apiece. Brind’Amour made a comment after Game 5 about the way he’s come to effectively expect the level of play we saw in the series from Slavin, and I couldn’t agree more, that it is probably taken for granted just how good he is. When he’s scoring multiple goals and over a point-per-game while providing his usual monster-minute-munching and lockdown defense? One could easily argue his value over just about any player in the NHL.
Free Standard Shipping Until Jan. 18
Meanwhile, I lamented Slavin’s partner a bit before the series started, as it made me nervous to think he could be matching up with players like Marchand and Bergeron, but it’s worth mentioning that DeAngelo was sneaky-good defensively in the series, too. He’ll never be a perfect player in that end, but he made a few glaring mistakes and provided the usual offense the Hurricanes need from him. He’ll play a key role in creating energy with his competitive fire as long as the Hurricanes remain in the postseason, and, ideally, with getting the power play moving in the right direction. Hopefully, he’s going to save the rest of the stick throwing for the offseason when he takes his dog to the park, though.
Bottom line, the Hurricanes had three lines that clicked for extended stretches in round one, and, even against a highly-dangerous, battle-tested Bruins squad, they proved too much to overcome – especially when Brind’Amour was able to choose the matchups with last change. The fourth line has as much talent as any in the league, and against a less-physical, defensively-structured opponent, there’s a great chance we see those guys start to make their marks felt as well. The depth Carolina has assembled is a huge reason they had the best season in franchise history, despite not having the 100-point superstar that the previous record holder, the 2005-06 team, did in Eric Staal. There will continue to be games where Aho and company get shut down, but it’s comforting knowing there are 18 other guys ready to pick them up.
A Launching Point for the Carolina Hurricanes
As the Hurricanes finally overcame their postseason archnemesis, they moved to 6-0 all-time in Game 7s. That stat is largely meaningless moving forward, but it’s an impressive feat nonetheless. Regardless of how it happened, though, this series simply felt like a big step for the team. Things really may be different this year. The team has been a factor for a round or two in each of the last few years, but it no longer feels like an accomplishment just getting here. It feels that if the Hurricanes get eliminated at any point before the Final, and maybe even then, the season will be a disappointment.
Honestly, the upcoming matchup almost seems cushy compared to the opening round. The Hurricanes have seen success against the Rangers (winning three of four, with the exception being Alexandar Georgiev’s 44-save shutout). Still, that’s a good hockey team with some serious goal-scoring talent, and this past series was obviously a glaring reminder that the regular season means absolutely nothing when the calendar flips to the playoffs. Still, while there’s an argument to be made that the Hurricanes match up better with this second-round opponent, the road only gets more difficult from here and will continue to do so the deeper into the playoffs the team gets.
Telling were Marchand’s postgame comments after Game 7, calling the Hurricanes “probably the toughest game to come out of the East”. This team is elite on home ice in a seriously hostile building for opponents, they’re very deep, they’re fast, and they defend well. Beating the Bruins just might be the launching point they need to make this a truly special year for the Hurricanes. Still, it all comes down to execution, and at this point, any team can win any series. Carolina just finished a tough, hard-fought series, and their next opponent will be in the same boat.
It’s a great matchup on deck, and the Hurricanes should not take their upcoming opponent lightly. A hot goalie is always liable to steal a series, and Igor Shesterkin, the likely-2022-Vezina-winner, is as good as it gets between the pipes. The Rangers have some high-flying scorers, too, and an excellent power play, so if the Hurricanes continue to struggle on their own man advantage, there’s yet another potential pitfall that can swing the series. Carolina will have to use this short break to regroup, check some film, and prepare for what promises to be yet another battle as a trip to the Conference Finals will be on the line.
Finally overcoming the big, bad Bruins just might be the launching point they need to make this a truly special year for the Hurricanes. One series won’t prove this, but it’s beginning to have the feel to people on the outside – and it’s still up to the players on the ice to prove it – things really are different now. They have been here before, they’re incredibly talented, well-coached, and disciplined in sticking to their proven system. The window is by no means closing soon, but, perhaps, it is truly open for the first time in 2022, ready for the return of the Stanley Cup to Raleigh.