Revenge will be fresh on the minds of the Carolina Hurricanes as they prepare for a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins. The Hurricanes were on a tear, having just swept the New York Islanders, but they ran out of gas against a juggernaut Bruins team and wound up the victims of a four-game sweep themselves.
This year, the story is a bit different. Under the NHL’s adapted playoff format, both teams have played three official games, and both teams are trending in drastically different directions.
The Hurricanes tore through the New York Rangers in their Qualifying Round series, swallowing them in a dominant three-game sweep.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Bruins had three miserably weak showings in the round-robin games they played. Luckily, thanks to owning the league’s best regular-season record, their spot in the playoffs was secure, but losing all their round-robin games means they drop to the No. 4 seed, where they’ll have to earn it against a scorching and focused Hurricanes squad.
Are the Hurricanes Now the Favorites?
A few weeks ago, it would have been crazy to call the Hurricanes the favorites in a series against the regular-season champions, especially considering the throttling the Bruins gave the ‘Canes just last year. But the Bruins have shown no signs of the team they were before the break, and if the Hurricanes can take advantage of that early, they could tilt the series quickly in their favor.
Secondary scoring has always been one of the few weak spots in the Bruins’ lineup, but it morphs into a major issue when their top line also goes invisible. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak combined for just one point – a Bergeron assist – throughout round-robin play.
For a line usually praised as one of the league’s best, they have looked severely underwhelming. Even NHL leading goal scorer Pastrnak, whose 48 goals were tops in the league, hasn’t found the scoresheet yet.
The Bruins’ power play, which was second in the league this season at 25.2 percent, has failed to convert a single time in nine attempts these playoffs.
One positive takeaway has been the play of Vezina-nominated goaltender Tuukka Rask. But the Bruins will need more than just good goaltending if they’re going to be able to penetrate the fort of Hurricanes defense.
Defenseman Dougie Hamilton has been practicing with the team after missing the qualifier series with an undisclosed injury, and it’s likely he gets into this series – possibly as soon as Game 1. Adding Hamilton to an already loaded and stingy blue line will provide the Hurricanes an extra roadblock the Bruins’ struggling stars must compete against.
Behind the army of defense, the Hurricanes have two hot goaltenders in Petr Mrazek and James Reimer – both of whom starred in the Qualifying Round against the Rangers. The Hurricanes’ netminders allowed just four goals in three games – the same number of goals the Bruins have scored in these playoffs.
So are the Hurricanes really the favorites? Three games is a small sample size, and it would be a disservice to ignore the 44-14-12 record the Bruins roared to during the regular season. Few teams in these playoffs have the kind of experience guys like Bergeron, Marchand, Rask and Zdeno Chara have, and anyone who doubts them is a fool.
Nothing truly matches the intensity of a seven-game playoff series when the stakes are at their highest, and for that reason, I still peg the Hurricanes as underdogs.
Containing Aho Is the Key
Sebastian Aho was arguably the best player on any team during the NHL’s first week of play. He exploded for eight points (3G, 5A) in the Qualifying Round, and currently sits one point behind Connor McDavid for the playoff scoring lead.
Because of the season’s suspension, the Bruins and Hurricanes only met once, which means the ‘Canes still have fresh wounds from their playoff series one year ago. But even in last year’s Eastern Conference Final, the Bruins had trouble stopping Aho. The ‘Canes scored just five goals in that series, but Aho still collected three points in four games.
The Hurricanes haven’t beat the Bruins since Dec. 23, 2018, but with a confident top line of Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen, the Hurricanes finally have a trio to answer the Bergeron line. It’s a weapon they didn’t have the last series, but the fact is, neither team is going to get too far without the help of their top lines.
Mrazek Should Start Game 1
The debate between Mrazek and Reimer is interesting. Both have relatively little playoff experience – Mrazek has 24 career playoff appearances, while Reimer has nine. Both have been mainly 1b goaltenders throughout their careers, with Reimer having played most of his starts with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Reimer stole the show in the Game 3 win against the Rangers with a 37-save performance, but Mrazek was the man between the pipes for Games 1 and 2. While Reimer offers a more steady, calm presence in net, Mrazek’s intensity and competitiveness are exactly what the Hurricanes need to bring the energy in Game 1.
There’s no wrong goalie to start in Game 1, but Mrazek is the likely comfort pick for head coach Rod Brind’Amour. His .940 save percentage and 1.50 goals-against average is among the league’s best. When Mrazek is on his game, he is fully capable of stealing a win, and a quick dagger to the heart of the Bruins could influence the rest of the series.
The Bruins are in a vulnerable position where their confidence is not at its highest. That makes Game 1 even more crucial – a victory by the ‘Canes will only stir further doubt in the Bruins’ ability to advance.
Full Round 1 schedule:
Game 1: Tues, Aug 11 – 8 p.m. ET
Game 2: Thurs, Aug. 13 – 8 p.m. ET
Game 3: Sat, Aug. 15 – 12 p.m. ET
Game 4: Mon, Aug. 17 – 8 p.m. ET
Game 5: Wed, Aug. 19 – TBD
Game 6: Thurs, Aug. 20 – TBD
Game 7: Sun, Aug. 23 – TBD