After a shocking opening round which saw both the Metropolitan and Atlantic Division winners knocked out in the East, Round 2 saw both betting favorites win their respective series with the Carolina Hurricanes sweeping the New York Islanders (despite technically being the lower seed) and the new second round Stanley Cup favorite Boston Bruins survive a tight 4-2 series win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Both series were highlighted by sensational goaltending and solid defense which could set up for a low scoring Eastern Conference Final.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
The Carolina Hurricanes were a beat up and tired team after their seven-game war against the defending champion Washington Capitals in the opening round, which saw them win the final two games to overcome a 3-2 series deficit. They advanced on no rest to face an Islanders team who had over a week off after sweeping Pittsburgh in their opening series. Despite showing early fatigue and losing starting goaltender Petr Mrazek in Game 2, Carolina received exceptional goaltending from veteran Curtis McElhinney and a little puck luck to close out the Isles in four straight in a series which was a lot closer than the sweep would indicate.
The Boston Bruins also overcame a 3-2 series deficit in their opening round to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games, showing they can beat a team based on skill and speed. The Bruins then went toe-to-toe with the Columbus Blue Jackets who had swept the top-seeded Lightning in round one. After falling behind two games to one, Boston won the final three games to win the series 4-2 thanks to unbelievable goaltending from Tuukka Rask and a resurgent top line. It was a heavier hitting series and the Bruins showed they can also win against a more physical team.
Now, the script is flipped for Carolina as they are the rested team after having a week off, going against a Boston team coming off a physical six-game series which included an overtime and double overtime game. The Bruins are the betting favorites at a -155 series price (indicating they’re a 60.8% favorite) but do they really hold that large of an edge?
The head-to-head season series was extremely close with the teams splitting two games in Carolina and the Bruins winning the lone game in Boston in overtime. All of those meetings can likely be thrown out though as the Bruins were missing several key players in each game and the meeting in December was the only game where Rask or Mrazek played. Let’s look at who may hold the edge in each of the key categories.
It may come as a surprise to some, but the Hurricanes are the top scoring team per 60 minutes in the 2019 Playoffs, thanks largely to their home ice success where they’ve gone 5-0 scoring five goals in four of the five games (and averaging 4.4 overall). It’s been an upward trend for this team since the trade acquisition of Nino Niederreiter and return of Jordan Staal from injury who have bolstered their scoring depth and made them difficult to line-match against. The Canes are also helped by some of the best puck-moving defensemen in the league and with the improved play in goal of Mrazek and McElhinney, everyone is able to take more chances to create offense knowing the man in net is there to bail them out with the big save.
Although Carolina sweeps the offensive edge for season and playoffs, Boston will still undoubtedly possess the single most dangerous line in this series thanks to the awakening of David Pastrnak who sparked the Bruins with four points in their last two games against Columbus. Along with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, the trio have scored 16 of Boston’s 40 goals this postseason. That matchup of the Bruins top line against elite shutdown center Jordan Staal and his line will go a long way to determining who wins this series.
The Boston defense has been an elite unit all season, but they’ve slipped a bit here in the playoffs. Part of that is due to playing one of the best offensive teams in the first round (Toronto) but could also have a bit to do with missing Kevan Miller who helped stabilize the backend and give Boston one of the deepest bluelines in the league. Miller will still be out to begin this round and they’ll also be without Charlie McAvoy for Game 1 which gives Carolina a clear edge on the backend at least to begin the series.
The Carolina defense was also a strong unit this season and have really turned up the pressure this postseason, but their numbers are also propped up a bit from playing the Islanders in the second round, a rather anemic offense. Keeping those things in mind, there isn’t much separating the quality of these bluelines. The Canes get a sizeable defensive edge in Game 1 with McAvoy out and still get the overall edge based on their current form and the Bruins depth weakened without Miller.
There’s no single category here which sees two completely opposite ends of the spectrum than what we see here in Special Teams. The Boston powerplay is an elite unit and the one thing they’ve succeeded in doing all season is putting the puck in the back of the net. They scored seven goals against the Leafs in round one which was arguably the difference in the series and then scored three goals last round against the elite penalty killing unit of Columbus.
The Carolina penalty kill was one of the league’s best units in the regular season, but they slipped a bit down the stretch and have been downright terrible here in the playoffs. They had a ton of difficulty against the elite unit of Washington in round one where they allowed six goals and then allowed three to the Islanders last round, a team with one of the worst powerplays. That doesn’t bode well against this Bruins attack and could be the biggest factor in the series. Carolina will absolutely have to show poise and discipline to stay out of the box, which won’t be easy against the aggressive Bruins who excel at getting under their opponent’s skin.
The other half of Carolina’s special teams hasn’t been any better as the powerplay has served more as a momentum killer than anything, averaging just 1.6 shots and 1 scoring chance per two minute powerplay. The Bruins penalty kill has been average in the playoffs, but average should be well enough to have the edge here and with the significant powerplay advantage, Boston holds a clear edge in Special Teams in what could be the difference in the series.
Neither team has been great at getting quality shots from the slot area and both defenses don’t allow many High Danger attempts, so premium scoring opportunities should be low at both ends. With Carolina being the top team at defending this area in their own zone, look for them to hold the edge in the slot battle which may ultimately not be a big factor in this series.
The Bruins will look to use their underrated speed to create scoring chances off the rush where they’ve been effective and with the Canes struggling to slow down their opponent’s rush, Boston will be dangerous with quick strikes, giving them the overall edge in the key stats.
This is a bit of a grey-area entering the series as Rod Brind’Amour still hasn’t announced whether Petr Mrazek is fully ready to go or if Curtis McElhinney will start the series. McElhinney was excellent in relief against the Islanders after entering midway through Game 2 when Mrazek suffered an injury. He allowed just four total goals over two-and-a-half games with a .947 overall save percentage and .965 at 5-on-5 which would qualify as the best mark in the playoffs.
If Mrazek doesn’t start Game 1, it’s believed he’ll still start the majority of games this series which is why he’s penciled in for the stats pack. His numbers over the second half of the season were right at the top of the league and although they don’t look as pretty from the first round series against Washington, there’s no question he was exceptional during the big moments when the games were on the line late.
Tuukka Rask had a terrible regular season and posted a career-low overall save percentage of just .912, but he’s caught fire here in the playoffs and is the likely Conn Smythe leader as of this moment for Playoffs MVP. Only Mike Smith of the Calgary Flames posted better overall 5-on-5 numbers this postseason and of all the goaltenders still standing, no one comes close to Rask’s numbers with St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington and Mrazek a distant 2nd and 3rd behind him.
The clear edge in net belongs to Rask entering the series as he’s been the best player on the ice for Boston this postseason but the numbers on the Carolina side are also very good. The biggest question may be whether Mrazek will be as effective when he returns as we’ve seen he’s one of the best at making the big save when the game’s on the line.
FINAL WORD: If you’ve been following along to all of my previews before each round, you’ll notice this is the first series where Carolina red and white doesn’t completely dominate the stat graphics. This will be their biggest test yet and first time they won’t be considered the pre-series favorite but this one should also be closer than many expect. The Canes should still hold a slight edge while playing 5-on-5 at both ends of the ice but their penalty kill is going to be the X-factor in the end. Boston’s powerplay is simply too dangerous and a key powerplay goal in a few low scoring games could ultimately be the deciding factor.
SERIES PICK: BOSTON IN 7
SERIES WAGER: BOSTON (-160) (1 unit) (Regardless of what you currently hold for Futures tickets, the recommendation is to grab the series price on Boston to start, with the expectation of them winning Game 1. We’ll look at other options after that)
FUTURES WAGER: NONE (We’re currently holding Carolina to win the Stanley Cup at +2600 and although the expectation is for their ride to end here, due to the fact we’re also holding Cup Futures on both St. Louis and San Jose we’re okay with letting this series play out a bit, knowing we’ll have a dog in the Finals either way. We don’t have much room left to buy Boston at the current +175 price and still turn a profit from our Futures, so we’ll keep an eye on the prices and if Carolina can get a series lead at some point we’ll take a look at the options then)