The Bruins’ playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes is over halfway complete, with Game 5 approaching Tuesday night. What has the series shown us fans to date? A lot, and a little, all at once. What you need to know is this series is exactly as it started, tied up two games a side with a three game series remaining. The first team to two wins is going to advance out of the first round to face the winner of the New York Rangers / Pittsburgh Penguins series.
Since returning home, the Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and the newest (original) member David Pastrnak have bullied the Canes, outscoring Carolina 4-0 during five-on-five play. These stars will go a long way in dictating whether the Canes will overcome their playoff kryptonite — Boston. With Carolina holding home-ice advantage for two of the next three games, the Canes will have the luxury of last change, allowing coach Rod Brind’Amour to attempt to neutralize this top line with his checking line anchored by Jordan Staal.
With this matchup forthcoming, the Bruins will need contributions from pieces further down the lineup. These depth options have been hit and miss all series, so their presence in the next three games will be vital to continuing the Bruins season.
Depth Piece #1: Jake DeBrusk
Jake DeBrusk has been relevant throughout this series. He started Game 1 on the first line with Bergeron and Marchand, before being the odd man out when Pastrnak rejoined the “perfection line” to spark Boston. After going pointless during the first two games in Carolina, he found his stride, along with the rest of the Bruins, potting three points in the two games hosted at TD Garden.
His goal at the end of the second period tied Game 4 at two goals a piece, and enticed Carolina to challenge for goalie interference. Certainly had the challenge gone against the Bruins, the game would have remained in the Canes’ favor, and there would not have been a delay of game penalty to capitalize on. But it didn’t — and it wasn’t — so the Bruins found themselves back with the man advantage. As luck would have it, the power play turned into a 5-on-3 affair following a high-stick that cut open Patrice Bergeron, and led to the Brad Marchand goal that pushed the Bruins ahead for the remainder of the game.
At the center of this all? DeBrusk.
He will need to remain in the thick of things, but assuming he can, the Bruins have to like their chances to advance. His goal scoring could be a tipping point in the series.
Adding a second dangerous line with Taylor Hall and Erik Haula will mitigate some of the matchup advantages that come with home ice by taking the burden off the Bergeron line to tally all of the Bruins goals. If goal scoring is 1A, remaining committed to a 200-foot game is 1B for DeBrusk. Assuming he remains engaged and committed to the defensive aspect of his game, DeBrusk can continue to elevate his game and build his playoff persona as someone who can rise to the occasion when the lights are the brightest.
Depth Piece #2: Craig Smith
In mid-March, Craig Smith was a part of the Bruins third line that had taken games over for weeks in a row. Combining with Charlie Coyle and Trent Frederic, Smith was scoring, checking, and defending the Bruins’ end, growing hope in Boston to not only climb out from a Wild Card position into an Atlantic playoff spot, but also raising the possibility the Bruins could have three true lines that could score throughout the playoffs.
Fast forward to today, and that reality is a tiny bit different. The Bruins did not jump into an Atlantic playoff spot, and the third line that had been hot enough to melt the last bit of snow from the Boston ground has gone ice cold. I’m talking ground-frosting-over-where-they-walk cold. Trent Frederic has played his way out of the playoff lineup, with Bruce Cassidy opting for the reliable veteran, Chris Wagner. Charlie Coyle has produced, but not with Craig Smith. It has been in special teams situations, including a shorthanded strike with Jake Debrusk.
So, Vince, with all this doom and gloom what kind of nonsense are you trying to pull by putting Smith on your list to “watch,” huh?
Fair question. Good question, I would even contend. I’m so glad you asked.
First, Smith is the kind of player who should succeed in the playoffs. He doesn’t shy away from contact, and he is always in motion tracking the puck. Sometimes just watching him on TV makes me tired. Also, he is never going to turn down the opportunity to shoot the puck. Second, as evident from his season, he is a person Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy trusts to move up and down the lineup. If an injury happens, Smith can slide into the top-six and keep the offense in rhythm. With his shoot-first mentality, he can create offense just by flinging the puck on net and hoping for a rebound based on the mass of humanity in front of Carolina’s goal.
Finally, Smith is a streaky player. He can look lost on the ice and be a non-factor on the scoresheet, then with one good bounce find the back of the net and the floodgates open. The ability to score in bunches lands him on my list, and if he is able to get that elusive first goal, look out. He has been known to pile on, something the Bruins will certainly greet with welcome arms.
Depth Piece #3: Brandon Carlo
Game 4 was almost a disaster. An hour before puck drop, it was announced that work-horse, top defenseman Charlie McAvoy would be out having entered the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol. The Bruins were now without both pillars of their top line, as Hampus Lindholm was still recovering from the head injury he sustained following a collision with Andrei Svechnikov behind the Bruins’ net in Carolina. Brandon Carlo was now the Bruins’ top pair right defenseman. How did he respond?
Carlo found his way on to the scoresheet for the first time this postseason with an assist on Brad Marchand’s empty-net goal. More importantly, Carlo kept the Canes off the scoresheet during his shifts. He was buoyed by Carolina taking nearly an entire period in penalty time (18 PIMs). Even then, Carlo still logged over 3:30 in short-handed ice time, standing tall and keeping the puck out of Jeremy Swayman’s net.
McAvoy’s COVID-19 absence will extend at least through Game 5. Lindholm has begun skating again, but his return date is unknown. This all goes to say Brandon Carlo may find a second consecutive game where he is the team’s top defenseman. Unlike the forwards already mentioned, nobody is asking Carlo to light the lamp or carry the Bruins from the blue line. What is being asked of him is to remain defensively sound, clear the front of the net, and spring the Bruins’ forwards into the neutral zone. In his game, defense is the best offense, and by shutting down the Canes top scorers Carlo can propel the Bruins into the second round.
Depth Piece #4: Mike Reilly
As is the nature of the playoffs, someone is expected to step up. For the Bruins, Mike Reilly is one of those players. He started the series in the press box, watching Games 1 and 2 as a healthy scratch. Following the Lindholm hit mentioned above, Reilly was drawn into the lineup, and saw 14 minutes of ice time in Game 3. With McAvoy’s absence in Game 4, Reilly’s ice time jumped north of 17 minutes. Reilly’s game was fine in each of his two appearances, but did not “wow” at any point. He was plus-1 in Game 3, which (do with that what you will), is better than being minus-1, but he was not involved in the creation of the goal. In Game 4, with more responsibility, Reilly was noticeable on the ice, but managed to find his way back into the penalty box, a no-no for players on short leashes trying to remain in the lineup.
He is not going to replace either of the Bruins’ blue-liners currently out of the lineup, but Reilly does possess the skating ability and passing creativity to neutralize some of the Canes’ forechecking aggressiveness. Where Carlo may not be asked to provide offense from the back, Reilly does have an offensive obligation. If he can regain some of his confidence and form from last season’s playoffs, he can alleviate some pressure off the top pairing defenders of the Bruins, allowing them to remain fresher for a deeper playoff push.
Depth Pieces Will Take the Bruins Deep
Carolina manhandled the series in games that have been played in Raleigh, but the Bruins dominated the Canes in Boston. Will the pattern continue? I subscribe to the philosophy that a series doesn’t truly begin until the home team loses. With that line of thinking in hand, I think this series will likely go the distance, and whether players like DeBrusk, Smith, Carlo, and Reilly can contribute will decide how far the Bruins playoff run continues. Let’s buckle up for Game 5 in Raleigh, Game 6 in Boston, and prepare for the possibility of a decisive Game 7 in Raleigh on Saturday.
Vince Reilly covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Vince graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelors in History and Political Science and earned a Masters in Sports Administration from Belmont University. He has worked in the Predators Front Office on Analytics and Operations, with Major League Baseball in Replay, and now with Tufts University as a Director of Hockey Analytics. Vince can always be found with a coffee in hand and he promises his sarcastic tone will always shine through his work.