A familiar opponent awaits.
For the third time in the last four postseasons, the Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes embark on a postseason series, beginning Monday night in Raleigh.
The Bruins won the two prior playoff matchups, sweeping the Hurricanes in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals and earning a five-game series win during the 2020 first-round series. This upcoming matchup shouldn’t end as quickly with a more seasoned Carolina squad eager to get over their playoff hump.
“It’s going to take our very best to beat them,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney told reporters.
Unlike their three-regular season matchups, the Bruins will need their ‘A’ game throughout their first-round matchup. The Hurricanes outscored Boston with an eye-opening 16-2 margin, with their last matchup coming on Feb. 10.
Bruce Cassidy’s club received a little break with Frederik Andersen out for Game 1. The dynamic Canes netminder and former Maple Leaf embarked on one of the better seasons of his nine-year career, with career bests in save percentage (.922) and goals-against average (2.17).
The Bruins will have their hands full against a well-rounded Hurricanes bunch, no matter who’s in the Carolina net. With that in mind, here are three keys for a Bruins’ series win over the Hurricanes.
Establish a disciplined forecheck against an active Hurricanes’ D
The Hurricanes possess four solid scoring lines and three stout defensive trios. And they all love to jump in on the offensive attack.
Hampus Lindholm’s arrival from Anaheim provided a needed two-way dynamic next to Charlie McAvoy on the top pair. A solid year from Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo on the second pairing and improvements of late from the bottom duo of Derek Forbort and Connor Clifton give the Bruins a better defensive outlook heading into Round 1.
But the Bruins need to remain disciplined against the speed and skill set of Carolina’s blue-liners. The Hurricanes love to use their defensemen in transition and their cycle game — notably Tony DeAngelo and Jaccob Slavin. A healthy forecheck, along with timely physical play will only benefit the B’s in a likely tightly-contested series.
“Our third forward has to be disciplined and recognize when to live and fight another day or live to stay in on the battle. And I think our first forechecker … you’re not always going to get there on time. They have some big bodies; you’re not going to ride them out of the play,” Cassidy said.
“So if we can make it tougher for them to get up and join, their numbers don’t reflect that they’re a great line rush team without the D being part of it. So we hope to minimize that. They do great on the forecheck, O-Zone cycles their D are involved. So if we can minimize their D getting involved, we can neutralize that part of the game.”
A good counterattack against a seasoned, but unproven backup goalie, could go a long way. This leads us to our next key.
Take advantage of Carolina’s goaltending situation to start the series
The goaltending pendulum might have shifted to the Bruins to at least start the series.
Andersen continues to skate on his own according to The Athletic’s Sara Civian, but hasn’t practiced since sustaining a lower-body injury late in the regular season.
The Hurricanes will likely turn to backup Antti Raanta over rookie Pytor Kochetkov for Monday’s series opener. But the Bruins have prepped for either option to man the Carolina net in Game 1.
“Andersen was really good against us,” Cassidy said. “We can’t control who plays against us, but that’s a factor. ‘Goalie Bob’ [goalie coach Bob Essensa] will go through the goalies he thinks is playing and do a little presentation on him. We’re expecting Raanta, but we’re not really sure, so we’ll have a bit of a book on each guy.”
The 32-year-old Raanta enjoyed a bounce-back season during his first year in Raleigh. Raanta and Andersen formed a dynamic duo en route to securing the Jennings Trophy.
Raanta has five games of playoff experience in a mop-up role. Like Ullmark, however, he’s yet to earn a postseason start in his career.
Ullmark found his groove in the second half of the season, outplaying Jeremy Swayman to earn the Game 1 nod. Cassidy and the coaching staff won’t hesitate to tab Swayman if Ullmark struggles. But the Bruins should feel pretty good about their goaltending in the first playoff of the post-Tuukka Rask era.
Find a mismatch against the ‘Canes third line
The Bruins received solid offensive production out of their third line of Trent Frederic, Charlie Coyle, and Craig Smtih during the second half of their regular season. But Cassidy and the coaching staff tend to use the trio against the opposition’s third or fourth lines during 5v5 play.
Rod Brind’Amour has an opposite approach with his third line of Nino Neiderietter, Jordan Staal, and Jesper Fast. The fourth-year Carolina bench boss isn’t shy lining them up opposite any first or second line.
In their first meeting back in October, the Neiderietter-Staal-Fast trio went toe-to-toe against Boston’s once potent top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak 10-9 edge in shot attempts and a 7-6 advantage in shots on net during 5v5 time.
Marchand (suspension) and Bergeron (injury) missed the final Bruins-Canes meeting of the regular season. By then, the Bruins broke up their top line, moving Pastrnak on the second trio with Taylor Hall and Erik Haula. Without their potent duo, the Canes’ third line stymied the Hall-Haula-Pastrnak trio in their 7-1 victory on Feb. 10.
The ‘Canes possess one of the better bottom-six units in the league. They’ve established mismatches against the top trios, but the Bruins need to find a mismatch against this formidable third line. Perhaps Boston’s top line of Marchand, Bergeron, and a resurging Jake DeBrusk will provide that matchup issue in the first two games with Carolina possessing last change on home ice.
As WEEI’s Scott McLaughlin mentioned, the Bergeron line developed success against Sebastian Aho and Carolina’s top line during the last two postseasons. Given that trend, Brind’Amour might opt to keep his third line matched up against the Marchand-Bergeron-DeBrusk trio.
Cassidy’s staff will have the last change benefit come Game 3 trio to match up Bergeron against Carolina’s top line of Aho, Andrei Svechnkov, and Seth Jarvis. That trickle-down effect could benefit the rest of the lineup, perhaps setting up the Frederic-Coyle-Smtih trio or the fourth line of Nick Foligno, Tomas Nosek, and Curtis Lazar to face off against Neiderietter, Staal, and Fast.