Bruins figure to raze Canes
While the Hurricanes worked in the Devils' workshop, the Bruins sat with idle hands, waiting and wondering about the identity of their second-round opponent.
"We've had a long break," mused center Patrice Bergeron, who could be one of the keys in Boston trying to hogtie top Carolina center Eric Staal in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series that begins tonight on Causeway Street. "We can't wait to get it started."
What we have here are two hot teams, both with impressive first-round credentials, but both with significantly different talent levels. The Bruins are better, far better, even if they've had too long to dwell on that, and even if the Hurricanes are still living with the emotional rattle, hum, and edge that come with a dramatic Game 7 victory.
Predicition: Bruins win in six. Despite the home-ice advantage and deeper lineup, look for a slow start and a strong finish for the Spoked-B franchise. The Canes just don't have the size or scoring depth to outdistance Claude Julien's charges.
The Bruins rubbed out the Canadiens in four straight (yes, hard to believe, but that was this year). The Canes squeezed by in seven games, stunning the defensive-minded Devils with a pair of goals in the final 1:20 against Martin Brodeur, the game's all-time winningest goalie, who looked less than ordinary on the strikes by Jussi Jokinen and Staal that came 48 seconds apart.
Yes, the Hurricanes advanced, winning their first playoff round since clinching the franchise's first Cup in 2006, but it was a series gift-wrapped by the Devils and topped by the decorative bow of Brodeur's mysterious last-minute fugue to the land of beer-league netminders.
Longtime Boston fans can relate to the Canes' strength, which also happens to be their weakness. They have a dynamic No. 1 line, anchored by the 6-foot-4-inch, 205-pound Staal, who is flanked by a pair of 5-10 but clever wingers, Chad LaRose and Ray Whitney (like Staal a key component in winning the '06 Cup). All three finished with a team-high 7 points in the first round, in part because coach Paul Maurice opted to move Staal off an ineffective trio with Tuomo Ruutu and the recently reacquired Erik Cole.
The problem is, once beyond that Staal line, Carolina's production falls off the charts, eerily akin to what we witnessed in the Hub of Hockey during Boston's runs to the 1988 and '90 Cup finals.
In '88, Boston forwards Cam Neely, Craig Janney, and Ken Linseman led the offense, with defenseman Ray Bourque second only to Linseman in postseason points. Two years later, Neely, Janney, and Bourque led the charts.
In both campaigns, if Boston's big boys didn't get it done, it just didn't get done. It wasn't that they lacked a sniper (see: Neely), they were bereft of bona fide scoring threats when the first-liners were capped by the Oilers' checkers.
Right now, the Canes are living that one-line life. Once beyond Staal, LaRose, and Whitney, only one forward (Jokinen) had as many as 4 points in the first round. Defensemen Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen also finished with 4 points apiece. Faceoff horse/spiritual leader Rod Brind'Amour, who contributed 18 points to the Canes' Cup run in '06, went 0-0 -0 in the seven games against the Devils. Equally alarming, Cole matched Brind'Amour zero for zero (often referred to as the Full Thornton on Causeway St.).
"They've made some changes," Julien said earlier this week, noting, among other things, Carolina's addition of Cole at the trade deadline. "You want to peak at the right time, and I think they have done that. They come at you hard. They're aggressive in all zones."
Meanwhile, the Bruins, second only to the Red Wings in goals during the regular season, connected for 17 in the four playoff games with Montreal. The scoring against the Habs was balanced, with second-line right winger Michael Ryder leading in points (4-3 -7) and second-line center David Krecji equaling first-line center Marc Savard in points (5). Phil Kessel, Savard's right winger, finished second in scoring (4-2 -6).
Julien will roll out captain Zdeno Chara, the game's best shutdown defenseman, virtually every time the Staal line hits the ice. In the four games the Bruins played the Hurricanes this season, winning all of them, Big Z helped to shut down Staal, who didn't pick up a point.
Whitney, comparable to Mark Recchi in many ways, led the limited Hurricanes charge with 3 points in four games. Staal was one of four forwards, including Patrick Eaves, Sergei Samsonov, and Ruutu, who went 0-0 -0 against the Bruins this season.
"Yeah, I imagine 'Z' will be up against [Staal]," said Savard, who won't face the same kind of suffocating coverage from the Hurricanes, in part because Carolina doesn't have Chara's equal and the Bruins have Krejci and Bergeron pivoting legitimate scoring lines behind Savard. "He's got that long reach and he's able to get that long poke check in there every time, and after a while it adds up, kind of gets to you."
With Chara back at the point much of the time, the Bruins ranked fourth on the power play (25 percent) in the first round. Carolina (6.9 percent) ranked 14th.
The numbers just don't add up for Carolina, especially on offense. The Hurricanes also don't have a punishing hitter to equal the body slams that Milan Lucic will be expected to dole out (woe to the 5-10 wingers if they're targeted for the Wrath of Looch).
Maurice, brought in early this season to replace Peter Laviolette behind the bench, most likely will try to push the puck, a style not unlike what Laviolette employed in '06. He is not a "trap"-style coach, which makes for a more entertaining game to watch. It certainly made for a successful run down the stretch of the regular season. The Canes were on course for a third straight postseason DNQ at the start of March, then went on a torrid 13-1-2 stretch into April that tucked them comfortably into the Eastern Conference seedings.
The one place the Hurricanes can compete on near-equal footing is in net. Cam Ward, the Conn Smythe winner (playoff MVP) in '06, outplayed Brodeur in Round 1, turning back 93.8 percent of the Devils' shots and allowing 2.11 goals per game. Boston stopper Tim Thomas, the likely Vezina winner this season, rejected 94.6 percent of the Habs' chances, and allowed a mere 1.50 goals per game.
If there is one hope to have, be it pee wee hockey or the race for the Cup, it's best to have it in net, a lesson burned into the memories of Bruins fans in 1971 when Montreal newbie Ken Dryden so rudely cut into their waltz to a second straight Cup.
It's the same sole hope the Habs had a couple of weeks ago when they trotted out Carey Price to defend the honor of Les Glorieux. We know how that ended. Ward, good enough to survive the Devils' workshop, will have his hands full now.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.