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Playoff Preview Round 3: Canes vs. Bruins

Well, here we are again! This Canes team just keeps impressing at each turn. No one was giving the Canes a chance to win the cup at season’s start, not even myself. But what once felt like a distant dream is now a realistic possibility. The Canes’ postseason success has been a combination of skill, luck, grit, and belief in one another.

I love that there are some things in life that are certain like death, taxes, and the Canes making it to at least the Eastern Conference Finals when they make the playoffs. In 2002, it was a loss in the Stanley Cup Final to the Red Wings. In 2006, they defeated the Oilers and brought the cup home. In 2009, the Penguins swept the Canes in the Conference Finals. 2019 results are to be determined. The Canes and Bruins present quite the interesting matchup, and both teams absolutely earned their spot in the Conference Finals. So, here’s what to expect!

Stylistic Breakdown

I’ve always been a fan of the saying, “You have to be good to be lucky and lucky to be good.” Both the Canes and Bruins embody that. Their work ethic is comparable and it earns them fortunate puck luck. Whether it was second and third chances on offense or opposition shots ringing off friendly goalposts, both teams saw plenty of good bounces leading up to this series. So, something has to give. Right? Luck can be earned but it is by and large out of a team’s control. What they can control though is how they implement a game plan.

It seems that no matter how the sport evolves, you can count on the Boston Bruins playing their style of hockey. Boston plays a heavy game. They love to hit, and they love to stir the pot after whistles. In a single word, they’re aggressive. Boston is a traditionalist team in that they haven’t fully embraced the new model of all four lines being skilled. They pair their defensive defensemen with their offensive and two-way defenders in order to achieve their perception of balance. They still love their grinders, but that’s okay because it clearly hasn’t hurt them. Boston’s forward composition is top-heavy. There’s a drop off in skill after their first line, but by no means does that mean it’s not a deep roster. David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk are solid forwards, and Marcus Johansson is one of the more talented 3rd-line forwards in the league.

In contrast, the Canes are quite new age compared to Boston. They accept that each line needs to be skilled, and they compose their lines in such a way that each one poses a scoring threat. I like the Canes bottom six slightly more than Boston’s on the basis that four of the Canes’ bottom six have 10+ goals. While the Canes might not possess much finesse beyond their top six, they make up for it with their tenacity and speed being spread evenly throughout the lineup. On the backend, most of the Canes defenders are two-way players. The exception is Dougie Hamilton who is more offensively minded. Their balance on the backend is what makes them so reputable league-wide. The Canes aren’t a team of pushovers like years past. They’ll stand up for themselves, but you’ll rarely see them using post-whistle antics to get into the head of their competition. What will be important for the Canes in facing off with a heavy team like Boston is their conditioning. Even if none of the games see overtime, this series will take its toll physically for both teams, and that’s a sure thing. 

X-Factors

The great thing about the Canes so far this postseason has been their contributions across the board. Obviously, that’s going to need to continue. My opinion is that in order to win the series, Andrei Svechnikov will need to step up. He looked outstanding in games 3 and 4 last series, like he hadn’t missed any time at all.

Svechnikov can be a game-breaker with his rare combination of size, speed, and finishing ability. In practice this week, he was with Aho and Tervainen. That tells me that Brind’Amour is considering running his own most skilled line against Boston’s top line. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that of the forwards on the ice (Marchand, Bergeron, Pastrnak, Aho, Teravainen) when they match up, Svechnikov can separate himself from the crowd as the most physically dominant and skilled. He is listed as the largest of those forwards and at only 19 years old, he can still grow even more. That’s absurd potential.

Don’t get me wrong. Boston’s top line is likely the best in the league when they’re clicking, but each player contributes to it in their own way. My take is that of all of the players’ individual skill sets, Svechnikov is the most complete. He can be a problem on his own. He has shown flashes of being able to control the game himself, so the Canes may try to isolate him should matching top lines not be the go-to plan. We could see him with Staal or Wallmark too at some point this series.

For the Bruins, it’d be too easy to say that their top line as a whole is the x-factor. We could also say that Tuukka Rask is going to be a brick wall in this series, which is very possible. What I’m anticipating though is two teams trading counterpunches in terms of attempting to shut down the opposing top lines. This opens the door for a middle-6 guy to emerge. My pick for the Bruins’ difference maker is Jake DeBrusk. He’s playing with a career playmaker in David Krejci, and he managed to pot 27 goals during the regular season. From what I’ve seen from him, he has a nose for the net and an edge to his game. If the top line is seeing mostly Slavin and Pesce from the Canes’ defense, that means DeBrusk and Krejci could see a fair amount of de Haan and Fleury. The door is open for DeBrusk to make his presence felt. Depth scoring will be a must in this series. 

The Leadership Aspect

I think what makes this series much different than playing the Capitals and Islanders is that the Canes don’t have a decided leadership advantage in comparison to the Bruins. I’ve long talked about how great it is that the Canes’ locker room has leadership from coaches and players alike. The Bruins have that too.

Against the Capitals, the Canes were able to exert their willpower and get the Capitals’ players and coaches to doubt what they were doing in Games 3, 6, and 7. Their captain got tossed from Game 6. They lost their heart and soul guy, Oshie, to injury. Their coach, if you watched the interviews, just didn’t seem to be fiery like some of the players. The Canes never faltered in this regard. Everyone preached and practiced work ethic and sticking to their guns, even when they fell behind 2-0 in the series and got walloped 6-0 in Game 5. They had a plan.

The Islanders had a brilliant system coach and proven winner in Trotz that managed to contain the Canes quite well. Where they fell short was in execution. When the Islanders’ skaters hit that rut, they didn’t have that voice or that superstar player to keep the morale high. They were also missing Johnny Boychuk, arguably their most significant veteran presence. For the Canes, they were no strangers to adversity and not being able to finish plays. The shooting percentage and regression stories from early this season are well documented. The stingy Islanders were just a surmountable bump in the big picture for Coach Brind’Amour and the team.

The Boston Bruins are different. They have a very strong leadership group that, like the Canes, extends from the coach down his entire bench. The Canes have Coach Brind’Amour who has his team preparing and playing just like he did. They have captain Justin Williams, and his winning, clutch pedigree. They have Jordan Staal doing a little bit of everything. Jordan Martinook is the locker room catalyst. Aho and Tervainen are the stars that are looked to for production.

The Bruins have a great coach in Bruce Cassidy. He always has his team ready to go, and he’s a clear motivator. They have Vezina Trophy winner, Tuukka Rask backstopping them. They have four-time Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron. Captain Zdeno Chara is still massive, and he’s still an effective defender at age 41 despite his offensive numbers being down. On the fourth line, they have David Backes, former captain of the St. Louis Blues. To say this Eastern Conference Final matchup is a clash of winners would be an understatement.

Injuries and Suspensions

The Canes are expected to get Micheal Ferland back for this series. He’s been dealing with a recurring upper body injury. His physicality will be a welcome addition to the lineup, but just how physical he will be remains to be seen. He re-aggravated the injury after throwing a hit earlier this postseason. Saku Maenalanen injured his hand during the second round and had surgery to repair it. The initial timetable was 10-14 days, but his return is still up in the air. There’s also no promise he’ll have a lineup spot if Ferland and Martinook can stay healthy. Speaking of Martinook, he is figuratively glued and taped at the knee or ankle. He’s expected to play through his lower body injury. It’s clearly affecting his speed, and we’ll probably find out his ankle or foot has been broken. Signs are pointing to Petr Mrazek returning to the crease against Boston. Thankfully it wasn’t a serious injury, but I’m still a bit nervous if he’ll be able to settle into his groove again. On the Canes backend, Trevor van Riemsdyk had surgery on his left shoulder. He is done for the year, and Haydn Fleury draws into the lineup.

Boston’s most notable loss is that of Charlie McAvoy. He was suspended one game for an illegal check to the head of Josh Anderson in game 6 of the series against Columbus. The Canes will need to capitalize on this, for this is an opportune time to steal a game on the road. Noel Acciari didn’t practice on Wednesday and his status for Game 1 is still unknown. Behind center ice, the Bruins are without Kevan Miller and John Moore. Miller seems unlikely to play, and he is still out indefinitely with a lower body injury. Moore could draw into the lineup at some point this series, and his return would be a boost for an already steady Boston blue line.

Prediction

This will be a battle of tyrants from a leadership perspective. Both teams have proven on ice systems, locker room identities, and rosters that can execute. I like that the Canes are younger and thus likely better conditioned. Both teams are fast, and I don’t see a significant advantage for either side in this regard. There will be times when each team looks quicker than the other. The Canes’ Finns have peppered Rask over the course of the season, but this is playoffs, and playoff Rask is an entirely different animal (Did you see the Columbus series?). A lot of focus will be on each teams’ top line and how the coaches choose to counter each other with last change at home. Give me the Bruins’ top line over the Canes, but give me the Canes’ defense over the Bruins. It’s for this reason that the series will come down to secondary scoring and, obviously, goaltending. I like the Canes potential to get scoring from their bottom 6 better than the Bruins, but I like Rask better than Mrazek/McElhinney. Especially considering Mrazek’s mojo could have been interrupted by his injury.

For me, Boston is the toughest and most complete test yet. What sets Boston apart for me is that they have the leadership and the speed. If they get fully healthy, they get a significant size advantage too. Their talent is refined and most of it is in their prime years. They are battle-tested via 7 games vs. Toronto and 6 vs. Columbus. They’ve had rest, but not down time, if you will. The Canes have had down time since the Islanders, which could be good or bad. Yes, the Canes have been tested in their own way this postseason. However, they didn’t line up against any true superstars last series, so it remains to be seen if they can reapply their system to Boston like they did to Washington in Round 1. Rest assured that the Canes will be mentally ready for this tilt. But, the emphasis of this series will be both teams trying to outmuscle each other. This is an area in which Boston has an edge. To win the series, the Canes need to take advantage of Boston’s missing players and win Game 1. I see this whole thing coming down to Rask putting on a clinic in game 7, and the Bruins advancing to play for the Stanley Cup.

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