What is the biggest obstacle the Bruins face in slowing down the buzzsaw that is the Hurricanes?
SEAN: Getting shots through. The Hurricanes did a phenomenal job against the Islanders in limiting their chances, while at the same time making the most of out of their own. The Bruins averaged 36 shots on net against the Blue Jackets and certainly possess the offensive weapons to make Carolina’s defense and goaltenders stay busy. Boston dominated possession against Columbus, but we know how good the Hurricanes are at retaining possession at 5-on-5.
The Bruins will also have to worry about the secondary scoring Carolina has been coming up with. Through two rounds 11 different players have scored for the Hurricanes and when it’s not Sebastian Aho or Teuvo Teravainen stepping up, it’s Jordan Staal or Warren Foegele contributing.
JAMES: With Boston’s core aging, and not shockingly often injured, their biggest limitations are their bodies. Consider the Hurricanes the stack of bodies Jon Snow needed to navigate in a memorable “Game of Thrones” battle, then: even when hurt, Carolina can send waves and waves against the Bruins. Both teams have a lot going for them, but the physical toll may prove challenging for the Bruins.
ADAM: Getting through that Carolina defense. It has been an underrated and overlooked group for a couple of years now, mostly because the goaltending behind it always wasted it and the forwards in front of it weren’t good enough for it to matter. No longer the case this season! The Hurricanes finally have some finishers up front and enough goaltending to not squander their great defensive efforts. This has been one of the best shot-suppression teams in the league for four or five years now and they are keeping it going in the playoffs. They are just a tough group to get through. They can skate, they can more the puck, they are great at taking away passing lanes and shooting lanes, and they just do everything you want to see from a modern-day NHL defense group.
JOEY: I think the biggest challenge for Boston will be literally slowing down the Hurricanes. Carolina is arguably the quickest team the Bruins have faced in the first three rounds of postseason, so it might be a little challenging for them to adapt to their newest opponent. Unlike Toronto and Columbus, the Hurricanes don’t play a gritty style. As Rod Brind’Amour pointed out during their first-round series against Washington, Carolina isn’t interested in going toe-to-toe with their opponents. They’ll be aggressive on the forecheck, but they aren’t going to beat up the opponent physically. Handling that speed won’t be easy for the Bruins.
SCOTT: The Pressure. No one has more puck possession in these playoffs that the Carolina Hurricanes. And the speed. And the shot suppression. The Bruins have the most 5-on-5 shots in these playoffs while the Hurricanes have limited teams to 225, the least among teams remaining. That comes back to the relentless pace the Rod Brind’Amour demands of his players, and it works. The Bruins need to be able to deal with that. They’re going to be facing the quickest team they’ve seen yet and need to find a way to move the puck quickly to get around the forecheck, one that knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champions and one that made mincemeat out of the New York Islanders.
RYAN: Stepping up in PNC Arena will be the Bruins’ biggest challenge. Carolina held Washington to just three goals over the Hurricanes’ three home games and they earned back-to-back 5-2 wins against the Islanders at home in Round 2. Of course, the Hurricanes will have to win a game in Boston for it to matter, but that’s far from an impossible task if Carolina’s defense and goaltending continues to perform as it has.
Are the Blues this season’s team of destiny considering where they were at the start of January?
SEAN: I think they’re the Western Conference version of the Hurricanes. Both teams took different routes to get the conference finals after spending the first half of the season near the bottom of the NHL. In fact, since January 3, the Blues (65) and Hurricanes (62) were two of the league’s top three point-getters, with the Tampa Bay Lightning sandwiched between them. They’re both great stories in their own way: The Blues turning things around after firing their head coach in November and Jordan Binnington playing incredible after making his debut in January, and then the Hurricanes with their “Storm Surges,” feud with Don Cherry, and phenomenal team that’s put them in yet another conference final. It would make for a superb Cup Final matchup if they can win four more games.
JAMES: I’d look at the Blues more as a sleeping giant awoken. We’ve seen teams fail to convert on possession dominance early in seasons, only to erupt when things start to come together. The Kings won two Stanley Cups and zero division titles that way. The Penguins seem to make a habit of it. Honestly, it was perplexing that St. Louis wasn’t putting it together earlier this season … until they did. And then some.
(Honestly, the Islanders were the team of destiny, in my opinion. The destination just happened to be Round 2.)
ADAM: They sure seem like it. Watching them play and watching the way they play gives off the same sort of vibe I got from watching the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings and the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins. Definitely not as dangerous offensively as that Penguins team, but just in the sense that they control the puck so well and just look so dominant at times when they have it. They just look like a really solid team from top to bottom, and the way they close out that Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars was impressive. They completely dominated Games 6 and 7, even though the latter needed double overtime. They were clearly the better team in that game from the opening puck drop.
JOEY: I don’t know about all that. Were the Golden Knights the team of destiny last year? It probably seemed that way heading into the Western Conference Final last year, but they eventually lost in the Stanley Cup Final. Don’t get me wrong, the Blues are the story of the season in my mind, but I don’t think they’re the team of destiny. Let’s just appreciate the work Craig Berube has done with this group. He totally revamped the way they play and turned them into a contender over night.
SCOTT: By default, I suppose. Getting past Winnipeg in the manner they did was impressive, but I wasn’t sold on Dallas and they struggled at times in that series. That said, take nothing away from their ability to get the job done. When push came to shove in Games 6 and 7, the Blues showed a cohesiveness that most teams just don’t have because most teams don’t go through all the ebbs that the Blues did.
That camaraderie will serve them well in the Western Conference Final, but I don’t think it’s enough to skewer the Sharks. The Sharks have their own brew of team connectedness. The Sharks haven’t exactly had the easiest road to get to where they are, here they are. And they’re just more talented, with myriad options when it comes to who can take over a game. The Blues have been a great story, but this round is likely their final chapter.
RYAN: I think the Blues were a good team from the start that just took a while to get going. It certainly helped that Jordan Binnington came in and became a dominant force from January onward. I don’t see them as a team of destiny though. I see them as a team that was perhaps, due to their bad start, underrated, but not to the extent that I would pick them to win the Cup. Of course, they’ve gotten this far so anything is possible.
What under-the-radar player will shine this round?
SEAN: Jaccob Slavin really shouldn’t be considered “under-the-radar” considering his body of work since entering the NHL, but maybe now that the spotlight is greater more eyes will be opened to just how good he is at both ends of the ice. He currently leads the Hurricanes in points with 11 assists, is well into the positives when it comes to possession (55 percent Corsi), and is among the top defensemen this postseason in allowing the fewest shots on goal per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice.
JAMES: When Jake DeBrusk isn’t tormenting Nazem Kadri into a lethal suspension, he’s seemingly hitting a post per game. DeBrusk has been limited to two goals and five points in 13 playoff games, but that’s on just 5 percent shooting (40 shots on goal). He strikes me as due, although to be fair, I also thought the same way about Jamie Benn, who then missed Game 7 overtime-winner by a breath, so DeBrusk might not want my seal of approval.
ADAM: Am going to go with Robert Thomas in St. Louis just because he was starting to take on a bit of a bigger role in Round 2 and was really making an impact. He was great in Game 7 and has four points and is a plus-five in his past five games. To win a Stanley Cup you sometimes need a young player like this to emerge in the playoffs, and he might be the one this year.
JOEY: Kevin Labanc failed to pick up a point in San Jose’s second-round series against Colorado. He’s an important part of the Sharks power play so it wasn’t surprising to that unit struggle against the Avs. I think the points will start coming for Labanc in the Western Conference Final. The Sharks are deep enough that he doesn’t have to be the focal point of their offense, but he should be able to chip in with some valuable secondary scoring against the Blues.
SCOTT: I picked Oskar Sundqvist last round and that was a dud, so let’s go curse another player. Coming off an injury that’s cost him a lot of time, the return of Micheal Ferland could be a big boost for the Hurricanes. Ferland can make an impact offensively and he’s a massive threat physically, which is something the Hurricanes are going to have to contend with from the Bruisin’ Bruins. Assuming he’s back, and reports suggest he’s on track to start Game 1, Ferland can rattle the Bruins in more than one way.
RYAN: Kevin Labanc certainly isn’t seen as one of the Sharks’ stars and he wasn’t a major factor in Round 2. He had 56 points in the regular season though and is someone who can step up in the Western Conference Final.