RALEIGH — The Boston Bruins put away the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday, winning 3-0 to earn a berth in Eastern Conference Final against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Bruins hold the home-ice advantage, meaning Game 1 (Thursday at 8 p.m.) and Game 2 (to be determined) will be at TD Bank Garden.
After Carolina’s sweep of the Islanders, Las Vegas sports books elevated the Hurricanes to Stanley Cup favorites. Now that the Bruins have advanced to the final four, many are picking Boston to win its first Cup since 2011.
Regardless, the winner of the Eastern Conference Final will likely be favored over their Western Conference foe in the final two. First, they need to battle each other.
The Bruins have one of the best lines in hockey with Patrice Bergeron centering David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, and they have depth scoring with David Krejci, Charlie Coyle and Jake DeBrusk. But the rest of the B’s forward corps lacks punch — unless sometimes-used David Backes can time machine his way into being a factor or Marcus Johansson can find his groove with his new team.
Boston’s top line will surely see a heavy dose of Jordan Staal, and if Carolina gets an effective Micheal Ferland back in the lineup it could tip the balance up front in the series. The Hurricanes are also hoping for major contributions from Andrei Svechnikov, who scored in Game 4 against the Islanders and looks no worse for wear after missing time with a concussion.
Still, Boston’s big line can dominate a game and a series on their own, and that gives the Bruins a slight advantage.
The Bruins will be without Charlie McAvoy in Game 1 after his head shot on Columbus’ Josh Anderson in Game 6 of Boston’s semifinal series earned him a one-game suspension. That will be a blow to the B’s defense since McAvoy has played a team-high 24:46 per game this postseason.
Boston’s top four is serviceable, led by captain Zdeno Chara and McAvoy, and supplemented by gritty Brandon Carlo and offensive-minded Torey Krug. Beyond that, things are shaky — John Moore is coming back from injury, while Connor Clifton and Matt Grzelcyk are undersized and could struggle against Carolina’s fierce forecheck.
None of that really matters when comparing the two groups, however, because the Hurricanes defense is stacked. Trevor van Riemsdyk is out for the playoffs, but Haydn Fleury has filled in admirably. Jaccob Slavin has received Conn Smythe buzz for his play this postseason, and Calvin de Haan, Justin Faulk, Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce have all played their roles perfectly.
Tuukka Rask took over the Columbus series, allowing just 11 goals in six games and shutting out the Blue Jackets in the Game 6 clincher. He’s one of the top goalies in hockey and has one line missing from his resume: Stanley Cup-winning starting goalie.
All that said, Rask has struggled against the Hurricanes the past couple years. After a dominant first six seasons playing against Carolina (7-3-3 with just 25 goals allowed in those 10 decisions) and not playing them is 2016-17, he’s given up 12 goals in his last three starts against the Hurricanes. He won those two starts last season, 4-3 and 6-4, but was shelled in Carolina’s 5-3 win in December at PNC Arena.
Why the sudden struggles? Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen. Rask’s countrymen have each totaled four goals on the Boston goalie in those three games and have combined for 15 points — including four-point games for each in the 5-3 Whalers Night win earlier this season.
The Hurricanes have a decision to make between Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. Both have been solid in the postseason, but neither has Rask’s credentials. But the numbers put up by Carolina’s two top Finns make you wonder.
The Bruins power play has been tops among all postseason teams at 28.6% (and was third in the regular season) and their penalty kill is steady at 83.8% after being middle of the road in the regular season.
Compare that to Carolina’s special teams this postseason (10.5% PP, 75% PK), and this is a clear edge for the B’s.
Everyone thinks of Boston as the Big Bad Bruins, but outside of Chara and Carlo — and Marchand’s antics — there’s not a ton of snarl on the roster. If Ferland returns (and is effective) and Jordan Martinook got some needed rest, Carolina should have no problem matching brawn with Boston.
On the coaching front, I’m done betting against Rod Brind’Amour. He outcoached Todd Reirden in the Washington series, and his Game 4 line shuffling left likely Jack Adams winner Barry Trotz with no answers in the sweep of the Islanders. Bruce Cassidy is a good coach who is still looking for big-time playoff success, while Brind’Amour is pushing all the right buttons.
Other than the defenses (edge to Carolina) and special teams (Boston’s better), these are evenly matched teams. Many see the Bruins as the lone powerhouse remaining in an upset-laden postseason, while the Hurricanes have the feel of a team of destiny. It will undoubtedly be a great series, but Carolina has had Rask’s number. That will be the difference.
Series: Carolina in 6