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.