This year, the Eastern Conference is stacked, which means that a division winner playing a wild card team is a closer matchup than it sounds. In a re-match of the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, the Carolina Hurricanes will take on the Boston Bruins. That series is one that Boston would want to replicate, as they swept the Canes en route to a Game 7 loss against the St. Louis Blues in the Cup Finals. The Bruins had to deal with the Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Tampa Bay Lightning in their division and still finished with 107 points, albeit a fourth-place finish. That was seven less than Carolina, who took the Metropolitan Division.
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The Bruins have a true goaltending split. Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark both started exactly 39 games and played in exactly 41. So the numbers are just about equal as well. Ullmark had a .917 save percentage with a 2.45 GAA. Swayman was .914 with a 2.41 GAA. Ullmark is the veteran, so making him the game one starter makes sense.
Carolina enjoyed a renaissance season from Frederik Andersen, which could easily result in a Vezina nomination. However, an injury has him out for an undefined amount of time. It looks like Antti Raanta will have to step in after only starting 26 games this season. Raanta had a .912 save percentage and a 2.45 GAA when he did play, which is in line with Ullmark and Swayman. But the stability that Boston has had this season in net (aside from Tuukka Rask‘s short stint) gives them the advantage here.
Both teams have high-end defenders who will look to shut down the opposing top line. Charlie McAvoy is one of the best defenders in the league, especially at being a two-way player. The Bruins traded for Hampus Lindholm at the trade deadline, who was a good fit for McAvoy. That deal separated McAvoy from Matt Grzelcyk, who is paired up with Brandon Carlo. The Hurricanes’ forward depth is going to attack the bottom of Boston’s defense, which is not as strong. At least one of Connor Clifton and Derek Forbort are going to play. The third pairing was a massive weakness for Boston in last year’s postseason.
Carolina is led by Jaccob Slavin, who will see some Norris votes soon. He is supported by Brett Pesce, a bounce-back season Brady Skjei, and former Oiler Ethan Bear. Ian Cole is an experienced veteran who will give Boston’s bottom-six difficulties. Tony DeAngelo is the best offensive defenseman on the team but would get lit up if facing the Boston top-six. Carolina has the edge here but has to be careful with its deployment.
This year’s Hurricanes had one of the best penalty-killing units in the modern era of hockey. With an 88% success rate, they should be able to fend off the Bruins’ power play that was smack in the middle of the pack, at number 15. Carolina’s power play was ranked 13th. Boston’s penalty kill was not too bad itself, with the ninth-best percentage in the NHL. However, Carolina’s units are better on both sides.
The Bruins enter the postseason with forward depth as an issue once again. Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand all had amazing seasons again, but none of the three scored more than 80 points. Taylor Hall was good in his first full season, and Erik Haula and Craig Smith are effective pieces. Aside from that? Charlie Coyle has been a different player since the 2019 run, and not in a good way. Nick Foligno scored twice all season. The saving grace is Jake DeBrusk, but can his rebound year continue?
Carolina is still stacked, despite Sebastian Aho being their only point-per-game player. The young core, including Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen, had great seasons. Vincent Trocheck has been a much better player since the trade to Carolina. Veterans Jordan Staal, Jesper Fast, and Derek Stepan round out the team. In addition, 20-year-old Seth Jarvis had a good rookie season. Somehow, Martin Necas and Max Domi can get lost in the mix. Carolina’s depth onslaught gives them the win here.
For both teams, the X-factor is a young forward with a ton to prove. DeBrusk has been in trade purgatory for what seems like decades. Yet, he managed to reach the 25-goal mark this season without a crazy shooting percentage. He can save the narrative that Boston’s forward depth is weak again. For Carolina, Necas has to be the answer. He has amazing speed and once looked like a top-line center. This year, he coupled bad analytics with only 40 points in 78 games played. If he sees a lot of Clifton and/or Forbort, Necas can have a huge series. In terms of who means more to their team, it has to be DeBrusk.
Everyone around the game sings Rod Brind’Amour‘s praises as an energetic head coach. Meanwhile, Bruce Cassidy has a reputation as a fine coach on a good team. Both should be seen as equals, with Brind’Amour’s intensity setting him higher. Cassidy consistently has led the Bruins team to success, despite no rings to show for it. The absolute aggression that Carolina shows, especially on their penalty kill, is all coaching. That gives them the edge here, but not by much.
Carolina may have won most of the categories here, but these teams are tight in quality. Carolina remembers the last playoff set between these two teams, so they will come out firing. Is Boston’s defense strong enough to hold them off? The speed displayed by Carolina is incredible, which does give them an overall advantage in the series. And if anyone could ultimately hold off Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak, it would be Slavin.
Prediction: Carolina 4-2
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