Based on the Canes quick 3-0 sweep of the Rangers and the Bruins plodding 0-3 mark in the bye team round robin, the ‘expert’ predictions prior to this series took a bizarre turn such that the Hurricanes seemed suddenly to be the favorites against a team that swept them 4-0 last season and was the President’s Trophy winner and probably the best team in NHL entering the bubble.
I was not having the abrupt shift based on three round robin games:
But even with Canes bias, I do not get Bruins suddenly being underdogs. Experts are greatly overweighting 3 round robin games over President's Trophy regular season.
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) August 11, 2020
Though I was skeptical, there was at least a glimmer of hope that just maybe the Boston Bruins would never re-find the higher gear needed to win in the playoffs.
Out of the gate, that was a possibility. Both teams looked sloppy and a bit out of sorts maybe with the odd 11am start.
But by the midway point of the game, the Bruins had proven that they were capable of much more than their ‘meh’ round robin level of play, and the series was probably back to where it started with the Bruins being one of the Stanley Cup favorites and the Hurricanes being a good young team capable of beating them, but very clearly still trying to earn their way up to that next level.
As noted above, the game started sloppily on both sides. Neither team could seem to connect multiple passes, and the game felt more like a preseason tune up than a playoff game. After more surviving than thriving for both teams in a warm up type start, the Hurricanes cracked the scoreboard first when Joel Edmundson was the recipient of a nice cross-ice passing play off the rush. He beat Tuuka Rask from between the circles for a 1-0 Canes lead 13 minutes into the game. But starting at about the midway point of the first period, Boston seemed to find a higher gear and for the most part had the better of play. The Bruins tied the game when David Pastrnak got behind Jaccob Slavin who was a step slow off the face-off. The margin for error is tiny against that line. Brad Marchand quickly fed Pastrnak who made no mistake with an easy finish on the back door. By the end of the first period, the Bruins had a 9 to 4 shot advantage and a bit of momentum heading into the second period despite being tied at 2-2.
The second period continued on the same track. Just like in the 2019 NHL Playoffs, the Bruins balanced blue line coupled with a system that moves the puck as a five-man group seemed to be mostly immune to the Hurricanes forecheck. Without the forecheck as the ignition switch to generate offense, the Hurricanes scoring chances or even significant possession time in the offensive zone were both minimal. Meanwhile at the other end of the rink, the Bruins opportunistically found scoring chances. The result was very little for the Canes compared to intermittent chances for the Bruins such that a deficit seemed inevitable. That deficit came via a controversial call/play. On a scramble in front of the net, a Bruins player pawed down an air born puck. Petr Mrazek seemed to cover it. But with no whistle, a Bruins player knocked it out from under his glove to then be poked into the net. The Hurricanes challenged but lost. The non-reversal from the challenge actually made sense per the rules. When Mrazek played the puck (even if he did not freeze it), the hand pass was negated. And the freezing of the puck is a judgment call by the on-ice referee for if the goalie has control of it. But at a more basic level, the on-ice referee erred in not freezing a puck that was clearly under goalie’s glove in the crease. The end result was a Charlie Coyle goal and a penalty on the Hurricanes for the failed challenge. But the play actually had the chance to be a positive momentum-wise for the Canes. Only 21 seconds into the penalty kill, Brock McGinn hustled into a shorthanded breakaway and pretty forehand to backhand finish. Just like that the game was tied at 2-2. But the Hurricanes did not really gain much in terms of momentum. The rest of the second period was more of the same inability to generate scoring chances off the forecheck or otherwise. Petr Mrazek was up to the task though. That combined with a couple posts saw the Hurricanes exit the second period tied at 2-2 despite the game heading in the wrong direction.
Despite the controversial goal and the game trending in the wrong direction, the Hurricanes entered the third period right where they wanted to be — just needing to win a single period to take game one of the series. But Boston quickly dashed any hopes for a better start. In a scramble to defend, some combination of Joel Edmundson and Jordan Staal lost track of David Krejci at the side of the net. With the puck on his stick and time to work, he exploited Mrazek’s tendency to challenge aggressively. A quick move and then pause saw Mrazek push out and then Krejci tuck the puck into the net around him. But the Hurricanes did finally manage to push back in the third period at least trading chances with the Bruins. The reward was a tying goal for Haydn Fleury when he fired through a Martin Necas screen to beat Rask who never saw the puck. The game was suddenly tied at 3-3 with 10 minutes to go. The stretch of play between the Krejci and Fleury goals was the only time the Hurricanes had an extended advantage in play. The last 10 minutes were played fairly cautiously defensively by both teams, and the game finished up at 3-3 for regulation.
The hope entering overtime was the the Canes young legs and emphasis on conditioning would be the difference-maker much like in game 7 versus the Capitals last year. But the Canes never really did gain the upper hand. Boston posted an 11 to 6 shot advantage in the first overtime and was generally the more dangerous team. The Hurricanes survived the first overtime but lost 4-3 shortly into the second overtime when Patrice Bergeron ended it. The play saw the Bruins with a reasonably harmless looking rush with a couple Canes defensemen back and forward backchecking help coming. But Teravainen and Aho both seemed to just reach and stop skating at the blue line. At that point, the play became a 3-on-2. Slavin seemed to play it like an even man situation which left Pastrnak open in the middle lane. With Slavin wide and Aho and Teravainen behind the play, the Bruins quickly converted a 2-on-1. Pastrnak fed Bergeron, and to no one’s surprise, Bergeron made no mistake with the game on his stick.
Player and other notes
1) 50,000-foot level
For the Canes/Rangers series, I said that whichever team won the forecheck would win the series. That turned out to be reasonably on target with the Canes smothering the Rangers at least in the first two games on the way to a series sweep. As I said in my series preview, I think the challenge for the Hurricanes in this series could be generating offense without the forecheck as the ignition. The combination of a balanced blue line that moves the puck well and probably more significantly a system and forward group that supports the puck and neutralizes the Canes aggressive forecheck by moving the puck quickly makes for arguably the worst match up possible in the NHL for the Canes in terms of using the forecheck to fuel the offense. If/how the Canes can either do what they have not generally been able to do in creating problems with the forecheck or be productive without it likely decides this series.
2) Best against best
Also from my pre-series coverage, the ‘best against best’ theme that I harped on is now minus one. Marchand/Bergeron/Pastrnak scored the first and last goals for the Bruins accounting for six points. The overtime goal featured Aho and Teravainen seeming to quick on the play at the defensive blue line. The Finnish duo did notch an assist each on the Canes first goal, but in total the Bruins’ best line was again the best on the ice just like in the 2019 series sweep.
3) The third defense pairing — Jake Gardiner/Haydn Fleury
There were positives from the Canes side. Haydn Fleury had one of his best games as a Hurricane in a big game. He was physical throughout the game, steady defending and scored an important goal to boot. Brind’Amour shortened the bench later in the game such that Jake Gardiner only played 13 minutes in a game that featured a full overtime period, but I actually thought his play was decent or better in a third pairing role. He had a couple key defensive plays in the first period and mostly stayed out of trouble which is what one is hoping for from the third pairing.
4) Petr Mrazek
Despite being dinged for four goals, I thought Mrazek was a positive. He allowed a back door goal with very little chance and the controversial one where he seemingly had the puck covered as two of the four. He also made some key saves when the Canes were being outplayed and needed him to hold the fort to stay in the game. I would expect James Reimer to start game two only because that would be the plan no matter what with a back-to-back. But despite the loss, Mrazek exits game one still with confidence and run of good or better starts still intact.
5) Trouble in the top 4
Where I thought the Hurricanes also struggled a bit was in the top 4 on defense. Jaccob Slavin was uncharacteristically right in the middle of the Bruins’ first and last goals. On the first goal, he was a quarter step slow covering Pastrnak headed to the far past. Against an elite line, that small mistake is unfortunately too big. He also struggled identifying/sorting out the 3-on-2 for the overtime goal against.
And after a strong qualification round series against the Rangers, Brady Skjei had a tough outing in Wednesday’s 4-3 loss. He gave up an odd man rush early when he pinched at the blue line at a bad time leading to a jail break behind him. He gave up another odd man rush when he inexplicably went to the player that Joel Edmondson was defending leaving his assignment wide open down the middle of the ice. He had a potentially horrible turnover having the puck roll off his stick to toward the front of the net. And he had a couple other plays where he seemed to be a bit puck-focused and lost track of who/what passing lane he should be defending.
Not mentioned in the messes is Dougie Hamilton. He did not have an effect on the game offensively which would have been a huge help with the Canes struggling to generate offense, but I thought that Hamilton’s game in total was quiet in a good way coming back from a five-month layoff. Joel Edmondson was part of the problem on the overtime goal, but in total, I thought he had another game that was decent or better.
6) The fourth line
Minus Justin Williams, Nino Niederreiter slid down to play with Morgan Geekie and Jordan Martinook. The line did not miss a beat playing to a very simple formula of getting the puck behind the net in the offensive zone and then working from there. When it works, the baseline result is a shift spent 200 foot from Mrazek and any risk of goals against. Though it did not happen on Wednesday, the optimistic part of me thinks that Niederreiter fits reasonably well as another puck cycler but could potentially also add some front of the net finishing.
7) Seeking more production
As noted above, the Canes top line will need to match the Bruins top line in this series. But past that, the Canes also need to get more from the other forward lines. The three goals today were two by defensemen and a shorthanded breakaway. The Canes second and third lines have not looked bad through four playoff games, but they have not produced enough goals either.
Next up is a fairly quick turnaround with an 8pm start on Thursday.