Bruins vs. Hurricanes: PHT 2019 Eastern Conference Final preview

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It’s easy to picture especially swaggery, Boston-sports-spoiled Bruins fans walking into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a mantra: “Just get past the first two rounds.”

On paper, that seemed to be the most treacherous steps in a hopeful path to a championship. Get past the Maple Leafs in Round 1, and then you’d assume they’d need to cross their fingers against the mighty Lightning in Round 2. Oops.

The Bruins figure to be fairly strong favorites heading into their Eastern Conference Final matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes, but if this postseason reinforces any lesson, it’s that it’s dangerous to assume any hockey playoff series is a lock, one way or another.

After all, that mighty Tampa team tumbled against Columbus, who pushed Boston quite a bit in that six-game series. The Hurricanes also dispatched the defending champion Capitals in Round 1, then swept the sweepers in the Islanders.

Despite this Carolina group largely being new to this whole playoff thing, the Hurricanes have shown remarkable resilience in rolling with punches. While other teams might crumble at the loss of a starting goalie, Carolina just kept trucking along. Playing the underdogs against the Bruins likely won’t bother this bunch of jerks.

The Bruins hold home-ice advantage and household names, but these Hurricanes might just make a name for themselves during this series.

SCHEDULE
(All times ET, subject to change):

Thursday, May 9, 8 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Bruins | NBCSN
Sunday, May 12, 3 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Bruins | NBC
Tuesday, May 14, 8 p.m.: Bruins @ Hurricanes | NBCSN
Thursday, May 16, 8 p.m.: Bruins @ Hurricanes | NBCSN
*Saturday, May 18, 7:15 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Bruins | NBC
*Monday, May 20, 8 p.m.: Bruins @ Hurricanes | NBCSN
*Wednesday, May 22, 8 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Bruins | NBCSN

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

OFFENSE

During the regular season, the Bruins scored 259 goals, while the Hurricanes managed 245. The two teams have been neck-and-neck during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Carolina averaging 3.09 goals per game, barely ahead of Boston’s 3.08.

There’s no getting around it, and the Hurricanes haven’t tried to ignore it; every team in the league figures to have fits with the Bruins’ big three of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. This trio’s mixture of defensive play, finishing ability, passing skills, and all-around hockey IQ is basically unmatched in the NHL right now. (If they have equals, the list is short.)

That said, that big three has been slowed down at times during the postseason, which is a credit to the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets. Unfortunately for opponents, the Bruins have seen improved support beyond that top line. A strong second line is led by David Krejci, Charlie Coyle is finding nice chemistry with Marcus Johansson on the third line, and Sean Kuraly‘s been able to pitch in some offense, too.

Don’t count out the Hurricanes’ group, though.

Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen have been very much a dynamic duo in their own right. Jordan Staal‘s defensive game has essentially always been there, and now he’s getting some bounces on offense. There’s plenty of help on the wings, especially if Nino Niederreiter can shrug off a cold streak, and if Andrei Svechnikov and Micheal Ferland can get reasonably healthy.

On paper, the Bruins have the high-end edge, while the Hurricanes’ offensive advantage likely comes in depth. It’s a testament to both teams that, frankly, even those gaps are probably pretty small.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins.

DEFENSE

Despite a staggering array of injuries at times during this postseason run, the Hurricanes have been able to control the puck more often than not thanks to their splendid group of defensemen.

Losing Trevor van Riemsdyk stings from a depth perspective, yet if any team can spread those minutes out, it’s likely Carolina. Jaccob Slavin‘s received some long-deserved mainstream attention for excellent play, but Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk have also been excellent during the Rounds 1 and 2. Calvin de Haan and Brett Pesce round out one of the more complete groups we’ve seen since the salary cap was instituted. This group can move the puck, create some offense, and do a solid job of limiting opportunities against. Don’t be surprised if there are long stretches where the Bruins’ forecheck is short-circuited by Carolina’s ability to transition the puck.

The Bruins’ blueline isn’t as versatile, but as a unit, they make life easier for Tuukka Rask, for the most part.

Torey Krug is an absolute weapon on the power play, and effective overall. Charlie McAvoy and Zdeno Chara enjoy an effective, symbiotic relationship when paired together. This is a solid group overall, even though Chara is understandably slowing down at age 42.

ADVANTAGE: Hurricanes, and not just when McAvoy is suspended for Game 1.

GOALTENDING

Both the Bruins and Hurricanes enjoy a luxury that few teams manage: a viable backup.

That proved especially important for Carolina, as Petr Mrazek missed the latter portion of Round 2 against the Islanders, making way for Curtis McElhinney. In a way, that seems quite fitting, as the two made things work in Carolina’s net, often by committee.

With Ben Bishop‘s Stars out, Tuukka Rask seems like the obvious choice for hottest goalie remaining in this postseason. Rask closed out Columbus with a masterful 39-save shutout, pushing his save percentage to a whopping .938 this postseason. He was the story of that Game 6 win, and really that series against the Blue Jackets, in general.

Losing Rask to an injury or slump would be brutal for Boston, yet Jaroslav Halak is a proven veteran who at times outplayed Rask during the 2018-19 regular season. Halak is arguably the second-best goalie in this series.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. Goalies are a strange lot, though.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins have generated the best power play percentage (28.6) of these playoffs, and ranked third in the NHL at 25.9 percent during the regular season. The Hurricanes converted on a middling 17.8 percent of their chances during the regular season (12th-worst), and have struggled in the playoffs, only converting on 10.5 percent of their opportunities.

(I’ve screamed from many mountaintops about the Hurricanes needing to move Hamilton to the QB role of its first power play unit in exchange for Faulk. Ultimately, I realize that this is a one-way conversation, as Carolina seems resolute in sticking with what … hasn’t worked.)

The Hurricanes sported the more effective penalty kill (81.6 percent) during the regular season (Boston was at 79.9 percent), while the Bruins have had more success in the playoffs (83.8 percent to Carolina’s 75). Of course, as dangerous as Toronto’s PP talent can be, the Bruins had the advantage of not facing Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals’ man advantage, while Carolina did during seven games in Round 1.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. The Hurricanes likely have an edge on penalty killing, but it’s incremental. Meanwhile, Boston’s power play may very well swing the series.

PREDICTION

BRUINS IN 7. The Hurricanes aren’t just some Cinderella story running on fumes. Instead, they’re a balanced team that can win battles in all three zones, and that defense gives Carolina a fighting chance against just about any opponent. That said, the Bruins have the big three, more trustworthy goaltending, and a power play that could buy them some precious breathing room. This should be a treat for hockey nerds and casual fans alike.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT Roundtable
Conference Finals predictions

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Schwartz, Tarasenko have Blues close to Cup Final

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Jaden Schwartz is on a scoring run that has the St. Louis Blues dreaming big.

Schwartz’s hat trick in Game 5 on Sunday helped give the Blues a 3-2 series lead against the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final and set the single-season franchise record for playoff wins.

The Blues could advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970 when they host Game 6 Tuesday night.

”It’s probably tough to put into words,” Schwartz said. ”It’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream come true.”

Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko have played huge roles in the Blues’ playoff success. Just not necessarily in the way that was expected.

Tarasenko has come up with more big assists than goals against the Sharks.

Meanwhile, Schwartz has found a scoring touch that eluded him during the regular season. After scoring 11 goals in 69 regular-season games, Schwartz has 12 goals in 18 playoff games.

”He’s obviously a tenacious player, a hard-working player,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”I know, goal-wise, he didn’t have a good regular season, but the work ethic was there and other things besides not producing with the goals.

”He’s a 200-foot player for us and he’s around the net for us, that’s where he scores. His hard work, being relentless and staying with it is paying off.”

Schwartz’s scoring run began on a quick pass from Tyler Bozak with 15 seconds left in regulation to snap a 2-2 tie in Game 5 in the first round against Winnipeg. He followed that up with a hat trick in Game 6 to send the Blues to the second round.

Schwartz is the first player to have two hat tricks in the same playoffs since Johan Franzen did it for Detroit in 2008 and he is the first to do it for the Blues.

Not bad for a guy who went 23 games without a goal during the regular season.

”He’s obviously been kind of our engine and a guy that’s scored huge goals for us throughout every series,” Bozak said.

”Pucks weren’t going in as much as he probably wanted in the regular season, but he was still playing really good hockey I thought and getting a lot of chances. And obviously what he’s done in this playoffs so far has been incredible. We’re pretty lucky to have him and we know he’s just going to keep getting better and keep doing those things for us.”

Tarasenko is the only player to get a point in every game of the Western Conference Final. But just two of his seven points in the series are goals.

Instead he has become a potent playmaker, setting up Bozak’s eventual game-winning goal in Game 4 and assisting on two of Schwartz’s goals in Game 5.

”Every time he gets the puck he puts them on edge,” Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Having such a shot like he does, teams are scared when he gets the puck and obviously they maybe will overcompensate for that and other things come available. Having played with him throughout the year, you see how dangerous he is whether it’s taking that shot or just being that threat that opens so much up.”

Tarasenko’s unselfish play was evident on Schwartz’s third goal. Carrying the puck on the power play, he could have taken a shot. But with San Jose playing the shot, he found Schwartz cutting towards the net for a one-timer into a wide-open net.

”Vlady is a good passer, he makes plays,” Berube said. ”He’s got his head up a lot, sees the ice well. His hard work is paying off. He’s working hard without the puck, and he’s a powerful guy.”

Tarasenko has led the Blues in goals in each of the past five seasons. Though he has taken a back seat to Schwartz in goal-scoring, the Blues are thriving in the postseason as never before from his playmaking ability.

And they are one win away from playing for the Stanley Cup, which many thought would have been impossible on Jan. 3 when the Blues were at the bottom of the NHL standings.

”Everyone knows we have a lot of work to do and we’re going to get their best game,” Schwartz said. ”They’re going to have the most desperation they’ve had in this series. We’ll enjoy it tonight, but we know there’s a lot of work yet.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins’ Chara says he’s on track for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara returned to practice and worked out with the full squad Monday, his first such workout since sitting out Boston’s Eastern Conference-clinching victory over Carolina with an undisclosed injury.

Chara had skated prior to practices over the weekend but didn’t participate in any full sessions. He said he felt good after the Bruins’ 45-minute workout on Monday and is on track to play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 27.

Chara was the first player on the ice Monday. Forward David Krejci also returned to practice. Coach Bruce Cassidy said Krejci was given a ”maintenance day” on Sunday.

Being a spectator for a series-clinching victory was difficult for the 42-year-old Chara. He was a member of the Bruins, who defeated Vancouver to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and lost to Chicago in the Cup Final in 2013.

”It was, I’m not gonna lie,” Chara said. ”Watching games are not fun. You want to play them, you want to be involved in them. It was that feeling of an anxiousness to play. But the guys did a great job.”

But Chara was easy to spot following the Game 4 win over the Hurricanes, when he suited up to shake hands with Carolina and celebrate on the ice with his teammates.

He has one goal and two assists in 16 games this postseason.

Patrice Bergeron said having Chara paired back up with Charlie McAvoy provides a major boost to the blue line.

”I think they complement each other really well,” Bergeron said. ”Obviously the experience that ‘Z’ has is something that he shares. And Chuck is the type of young guy that wants to learn and listen to everything that ‘Z’ has to share.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

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It was only a matter of time until Vladimir Tarasenko started to get on a roll for the St. Louis Blues.

Not only has he been the team’s best and most impactful player for the past five years, he has been one of the most dangerous postseason goal-scorers the league has ever seen. As we wrote at the start of the series, he was going to be one of the biggest keys for the Blues in the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks, especially if his puck luck started to change a little bit.

It has definitely changed for the better, and the Blues are greatly benefitting from it.

First, just a reminder as to how good Tarasenko has been in the playoffs during his career. Before this season his 0.50 goals per game average in the playoffs was second among all players that had appeared in at least 40 playoff games since 2010-11 (trailing only Jake Guentzel), and was among the top-20 in NHL history. The only other players in the top-20 that played in the NHL after 2002 are Alex Ovechkin and Mike Cammallerri.

If you want to call him “clutch,” or a “big-game player” that is entirely up to you, but even more than any of that it is really just a matter of him being an outstanding talent that has always been a great finisher. Get him the puck and enough chances, and he is going to score a lot of goals no matter what the situation is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That is what made his production through the first two rounds of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs a little surprising. He was definitely not playing poorly, but his overall numbers were down a little bit, he was relying almost entirely on the power play to score goals (four of his first five goals in the first two rounds were power play goals), and he had yet to record a single assist. Obviously power play goals are worth the same as any other goal, but with penalties and power plays not always being available come playoff time due to the “let them play” mindset that takes over at this time of year, even-strength scoring becomes even more important.

Despite all of that were still plenty of signs that Tarasenko was due to break out. He had 47 shots on goal in 13 games (more than 3.5 per game) and the Blues were dominating the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers at even-strength. He was doing everything right except consistently putting the puck in the back of the net. But when you have an all-world talent like Tarasenko does, it is only a matter of time until those attempts, shots, and chances start to turn into goals.

You might limit players like him for a little bit, but you are not going to be able to shut them down forever.

Starting with Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, Tarasenko’s luck started to turn a bit.

After his three-point effort on Sunday in the Blues’ 5-0 win, a performance that included his nearly unstoppable penalty shot goal in the second period to help put the game away, he is now riding a five-game point streak and has at least one point in every game of the series.

He was probably the Blues’ best player in their Game 2 win when he finished with a game-high six shots on goal and set up Jaden Schwartz‘s goal early in the first period, and then assisted on Tyler Bozak‘s game-winning goal in Game 4 to even the series. He followed that up by playing his best game of the playoffs on Sunday with three points (his second multi-point game of these playoffs) in the win that brought the Blues one game closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

His seven points in the series are two more than any other player on the team while he has been on the ice for nine of the Blues’ 18 goals (literally half of them) in the series.

If the Blues were going to put themselves in a position to win this series — which they have if they can win just one of the next two games — they were going to need Tarasenko to be one of their best and most productive players.

He has been with what has been his best five-game stretch of these playoffs.

The timing could not have been better for the Blues.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

‘Canes surge into summer with confidence after playoff run

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes enter the offseason confident of one thing: They shouldn’t have to wait another decade to return to the playoffs.

They hope their nucleus will make postseason appearances an every-year thing.

The Hurricanes made their first playoff berth since 2009 last much longer than most expected, advancing to the Eastern Conference final before they were swept by the Boston Bruins.

After getting a taste of postseason hockey, this largely young team wants to do it again.

”I think we all know now what it takes first of all to get to the playoffs, and to go through those tough series,” forward Sebastian Aho said Monday. ”Now we’re even more hungry.”

There’s reason to believe this group has staying power.

The entire defensive corps – including young stars Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – is under team control for next season, with six of them signed and Haydn Fleury a pending restricted free agent.

Key winger Teuvo Teravainen is locked up through 2023-24. Promising forward Andrei Svechnikov oozed with promise during his rookie season. Aho, who also will be a restricted free agent, looks to be a candidate to receive a long-term deal. He declined to discuss his contract status.

This core was responsible for turning the franchise around and bringing entertainment – both during and after games – to the rink.

They brought back those beloved Hartford Whalers uniforms for a couple of games. They broke out the ”Storm Surge” celebrations, those choreographed on-ice parties after regular-season victories at home. They wore the jabs from curmudgeonly commentator Don Cherry as badges of honor – plastering his ”Bunch of Jerks” insult onto T-shirts that sold for $32 at the team shop. They welcomed a live pig named Hamilton into the building for home playoff games.

And, of course, they played winning hockey – especially after the calendar flipped to January. Their record of 31-12-2 was third-best in the league and propelled them from last place in the division to the top wild-card berth.

”As the year went on, as the record shows, it was a lot of good results, and coming to the rink was a lot of fun,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said.

A few things to watch entering the offseason:

THE CAPTAIN’S FUTURE

The big question is whether 37-year-old Justin Williams will return for a second season as team captain with his two-year contract expiring this offseason. The three-time Stanley Cup winner known around the league as ”Mr. Game 7” for his exploits in those final games brought credibility and leadership to the dressing room and helped steer the young team’s midseason turnaround. ”I put everything I had into it this year, and if I have everything again, then I’ll be here,” Williams said. ”I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

THE GOALIES

The Hurricanes have some decisions to make with both goalies – Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney – facing free agency. Mrazek accepted a one-year, $1.5 million deal last offseason to prove he’s worthy of a starter’s job, and the team snatched the 35-year-old McElhinney off the waiver wire when Scott Darling was hurt. They both played well enough to make Darling an afterthought, and now the question is whether either or both will wind up sticking around.

FREE AGENCY

The only other unrestricted free agents on the roster are forwards Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg. Ferland provided a strong physical presence on the ice, but he didn’t score any goals after February and had a single assist in the playoffs. The Hurricanes should have some money to spend when July 1 rolls around. According to salary tracking website CapFriendly.com, Carolina had the most room under the salary cap ($16.2 million) of any team in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS FIX

Carolina has plenty of work to do on its power play, which led to the team’s undoing against Boston. The Hurricanes scored on less than 10% of their postseason chances with the man advantage – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. During the regular season, they scored on nearly 18% of their chances to rank 20th in the league.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports