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.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

kris letang
Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

Kris Letang Penguins
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”