The field is set, the wait is over. The best playoff in sports officially begins in less than 24 hours as the Boston Bruins face-off against the Carolina Hurricanes. Was this the ideal matchup? Some, (me), may not have loved the outlook, but this is who the Bruins are facing and who they will be game-planning to defeat. In preparation for this series, a number of us have taken on addressing what we see as keys to the series.
For as exciting as this season has been as offensive numbers have exploded to heights not seen in recent years, the adage remains true: defense wins championships. The Bruins and Hurricanes will produce, at least on paper, a match-up that should provide plenty of ammunition for the defense-first crowd. Both teams are in the top-5 in the league in goals against per game, with the Hurricanes topping the list and the Bruins settling in to fourth place.
My two keys to the series are the Bruins ability to stay out of the penalty box, and the penalty kill’s ability to successfully defend the Hurricane powerplay that will undoubtedly occur. If the Bruins can limit the amount of times they head to the penalty box, the team will be set up for success. Similarly, when a penalty is called and the Bruins penalty killers are sent over the boards, the unit will have to be at their best, blocking shots, limiting passing lanes, and the Bruins goalies will have to make one or two big saves to fulfill their role as the most important penalty killer on the team.
Bruins Must Stay Out of the Box
I might sound like a broken record by now, but I can hope that broken record is a classic, say Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever”, or The Rolling Stones “Beggars Banquet”? This is not the time for album talk, it’s hockey time. The point remains the same, playoff series every year seem to come down to special teams. The teams that excel at killing the penalties they do take and capitalizing on the powerplays they draw are the teams that have lengthy playoff runs.
Looking at the Bruins’ final five regular season games, a potentially worrying trend emerges. In four of the five games, the team took four minor penalties and in the fifth game against the Montreal Canadians, the Bruins found themselves saddled with 14 penalty minutes. Now I know, playoff officiating and regular season officiating are not the same thing, and some of these more ticky-tack penalties will remain uncalled now that the Stanley Cup is on the line. Still the fact remains, those four penalties per game could prove pivotal in the series against Carolina.
With offensive weapons like Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Teuvo Teravainen leading a deep forward group, coupled with strong offensive contributions from blue liners like Tony DeAngelo and Jaccob Slavin, Carolina has the ability to score and score often from all across their lineup. With this depth, only two skaters were kept to single digit point totals during the regular season, Carolina can fill the scoresheet from each line and defensive pair. As a team that has already shown this depth, it is even more important the Bruins stay out of the penalty box. Force the Canes to play at even strength and win the game at five-on-five, rather than allowing their offensive weapons the ability to set up and pick apart the Bruins penalty kill.
Bruins’ Penalty Kill Needs to Perform
During the regular season the Bruins successfully killed penalties at an 81.3% clip, a number strong enough for a top-10 finish in the league. Top-10 is respectable, but the Bruins will need to be even better during the postseason for the deep playoff run we all hope to see.
For a team that generally limits the high-danger chances their goaltenders faced, the Bruins did the opposite against the Hurricanes during the regular season. The penalty killers will have to bear the brunt of this role, ensuring that passing lanes are clogged with bodies and sticks to limit the Hurricanes chances from dangerous areas.
While Bruins stalwarts like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and Charlie McAvoy will be focal points of the penalty kill, I’d contend that the most important role will fall between the pipes with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. The Bruins structure often helps shelter the goalie tandem from an exorbitant amount of shots that require a high-quality save. In this series, one or both goalies, depending on how Bruce Cassidy chooses to use his tandem, will have to make a number of sterling saves to keep Carolina off the board. If the NHL’s favorite goalie duo and masters of the postgame hug can make the big save to eliminate a Carolina scoring chance on the powerplay, the Bruins will have the ability to build off the momentum.
The beauty, or frustration, depending on how you choose to view the situation, of a playoff series is that game-to-game adjustments and familiarity the two teams will have in a possible seven game series. The Hurricanes will have ample opportunity to study the Bruins penalty kill set-up, where they can successfully enter the zone, what passes become available after multiple repetitions against the same style, and where the goalies are vulnerable for shots to be focused on.
These factors are not new. Teams are attempting to analyze all these before regular season games as well, but in those examples, the team studies for a day or two in advance of an opponent, then moves on to the next team. Now in the playoffs, Carolina will be able to drill down solely on the Bruins and look for any advantage they can find. The same, of course, goes for the Bruins. Their penalty killers can study the Canes and figure out where their tendencies are to exploit and potentially capitalize on them, maybe even leading to a short-handed goal to swing the series.
Let the Games Begin
Now is the time to grab your popcorn and get ready for the most intense push for a professional sports championship. Players will push through injuries, unheralded names will earn their place in the lore of the league, and maybe, just maybe, this Bruins team can manage another deep playoff run out of their aging core. If the Bruins can follow this formula, limiting their trips to the penalty box, and in those (hopefully) few instances where a penalty kill is required, successfully keep the Hurricanes off the scoreboard, this team has a chance to make some playoff noise. If the black and gold pave a well-worn path to the penalty box, or lose their penalty killing proficiency, this could be a short stay in the postseason with a quick trip to the golf course and the offseason. Only time will tell, but I am more and more optimistic about this team as the minutes tick by in preparation of Game 1, Monday night in Raleigh.
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.