The NHL wild card format that has the two wild card teams not necessarily playing within their division has set up a playoff path for the Hurricanes that could see them gain revenge on both teams that have knocked them out of the playoffs during the Rod Brind’Amour coaching era. First, the Canes must defeat the Boston Bruins who ended the fun 2019 playoff run in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then if the Canes can also win a second round Metropolitan Division playoff series, the potential is there to meet the Tampa Bay Lightning who ousted the Canes from the 2020 and 2021 NHL Playoffs in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But sticking with the series at hand, today’s Daily Cup of Joe handicaps the Canes first round series against the Boston Bruins.
A good starting point is recognizing that this is not the same team that defeated the Hurricanes in 2019. Gone are captain Zdeno Chara and long-time goalie Tuuka Rask. I also think that an underrated change is the departure of David Krejci. More than any other player, I think he was the #4 who made it possible for the Bruins to go with their top-heavy lineup that relied on Marchand/Bergeron/Pastrnak to take on the other team’s best and win both at even strength and on special teams and then rely on a solid system and defensive play to hold its own below that. Regardless of who was on his wing, Krejci’s line was less star-studded than the top line but equally effective matching up against opponent’s scoring lines. Throw in top-tier goaltending and a competent defense, and the Bruins had a recipe to be in every game, stymie opposing offenses and make teams chase games.
Fast forward to the 2022 Boston Bruins, and the all-important starting point is the same with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak leading the way. But behind that there are changes to the offense stymieing ability below that. David Krejci departed for a late-career return to Europe. And Tuuka Rask has retired.
I think the Krejci departure is more significant than some realize. The peak Bruins a few years back had Krejci to anchor a second line that could quietly outplay other teams’ top lines, especially on the road if the opponent did not prefer to match up top lines. The Bruins have added Taylor Hall, Charlie Coyle and others, so it is not as if they are without forward depth that can score. But I still think that Krejci’s departure makes it easier for opponents to win the forward match ups below the top line.
And the goalie group though solid during the regular season is less proven in the playoffs. Gone is Rask. In are Linus Ullmark will make his NHL playoff debut in Monday’s series opener. If Jeremy Swayman sees action in the series, it will be only his second NHL playoff game. The young duo was incredibly good during the regular season finishing fourth in the entire NHL in goals allowed, but the playoff inexperience raises questions on how they will perform under the microscope of the playoffs.
Another potentially interesting starting point is the outcome of the regular season series that saw the Hurricanes go 3-0 and win by a massive 15 to 1 goal margin. In general, I think regular season games have minimal, if any, impact on a playoff series, but I do see two potential carry forwards. First, I think this could actually benefit the Bruins, as they will enter the season a surly from the outset and also know that they need to dial it up. On the Canes side, I think the only possible advantage is that if the Canes happen to win the first game by a lopsided margin, it could introduce some self-doubt for the Bruins thinking that maybe the Canes just have their number this year. But more generally, I would expect a hard-fought series in which the television broadcast mentions the regular season results and then they quickly evaporate into the spring air setting up close series.
Against that backdrop, here are my keys to the series:
1) Not letting Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak single-handedly decide outcome
I do not think it is a requirement that the Canes win this match up to win the series, but at the same time, they cannot lose it badly. More often than not, the team whose top players play better ultimately prevail. In Boston, I would expect Bruins bench boss Bruce Cassidy to match top lines to try to simultaneously nullify the Canes best scorers and net goals. In Raleigh, Brind’Amour will likely be more mixed with Staal’s line seeing some ice time against the Bruins top line but also letting Aho’s line face them in the regular rotation of lines. Regardless of if Aho’s line is playing directly against Bergeron’s they need to match or at least be close to matching them scoring-wise.
2) Secondary scoring from the middle of the lineup
Per my article a few days ago with keys the Canes playoff success, how deep the Canes go in the playoffs will be dictated largely by how well the Canes young guns at wing play and produce offensively. The middle of the Canes forward group will feature a mostly young group with Jarvis, Necas, Kotkaniemi and Domi possibilities to fill two of the wing slows on the top two lines. Meanwhile, the Bruins look to veterans like Taylor Hall, Charlie Coyle and Jake DeBrusk for secondary scoring from the wing. If Aho’s line can match Bergeron’s, how these second-tier players perform could determine the series.
Goaltending nearly always has a place on a playoff series keys list. For this series, it is a bit of a wild card. As noted above, the Bruins have two goalies who had strong 2021-22 regular seasons but are light on NHL playoff experience. Game one starter Ullmark enters the series having allowed only seven goals allowed in his last five starts and 15 goals in his last 10 starts. He enters the series playing well but making his first NHL playoff start. The Hurricanes have question marks of a different kind. Starter Frederik Andersen has been sidelined since April 16 but could see action in the series. Antti Raanta also missed a game due to injury but played on Thursday and should be ready to go. Regardless of who is in net, goaltending always has the potential to decide a series.
4) Who dictates pace and style
In the regular season games, the Hurricanes were able to get their feet moving, play fast and attack in transition and on the forecheck. The result was a couple lopsided wins. Against the Bruins and also in other series that follow if the Canes advance, opponents will do their best to make the Canes play from station to station instead of flying through the neutral zone to attack the offensive blue line. If the Bruins are successful in turning the series into more of a grinding affair that is more of a physical battle and less of a puck-moving skating affair, they get a game that they can win. But if the Hurricanes gain the opportunity to attack relatively unhindered in transition, the result will be closer (though not as extreme) to the regular season results. The tempo and style of play early in game one will be atop my watch list, as I try to get a feel for if Boston can adjust from the regular season games.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on my keys to the series?
2) What would you add or subtract in naming your own keys to the series?
3) What is your predicted outcome for the Canes versus the Bruins in round one of the 2022 NHL Playoffs?