The Carolina Hurricanes are halfway to hockey’s ultimate prize. After knocking off the Washington Capitals in seven games and sweeping the New York Islanders, the Canes will open their fourth Eastern Conference Finals berth in their last four playoff appearances against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden Thursday night.
The Bruins were one of the league’s best teams in the regular season, finishing second in the Atlantic Division with 107 points. They arrive in the third round after taking down the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the opening round and beating the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games. Boston will be a formidable opponent with perhaps the best top line in hockey in forwards Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand, the playoffs’ hottest goalie in Tuukka Rask and a strong defensive unit.
“A good team, obviously,” said Hurricanes forward Jordan Staal. “They are where they are for a reason. A team that takes pride in playing well defensively as well. They keep it tight and obviously have some talent to score goals and special teams. All those things that you need to have to get where you are and it’s going to be a good challenge.”
Following an incredible regular season, Pastrnak, Marchand and Bergeron have picked up where they left off in the playoffs, with a combined 14 goals and 34 points.
Containing that trio will be one of Carolina’s top tasks as it looks to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2006. They’ll likely see a heavy dose of Staal, who, in addition to chipping in four goals and nine points during this run, has continued his role of shutting down the opposition’s top players on a nightly basis, a huge reason the Canes limited the Islanders to two even-strength goals during that series.
“They’re showing up every night and they’re creating chances,” Staal said. “They’re doing what they do best. It’s just like any other top line: taking away time and space, playing in their end, making them play defense is the best way to defend a top line. They’re obviously a very talented group and we’re going to try and keep them off the scoreboard as best we can.”
The Bruins’ top line will also see a lot of the Canes’ top defensive pair of Jaccob Slavin, who leads the team with 11 assists, and Dougie Hamilton, a former Bruin.
Slavin knows the Canes have to be prepared for a challenging opponent, but the key will be sticking to what got them here.
“You’ve got to go out there and play what’s gotten your team to this point,” Slavin said. “Obviously, you want to make sure you’re playing to their systems too and how they play the game, just little adjustments here and there. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to do what we do.”
This series will be a homecoming of sorts for Hamilton, who was drafted by Boston and wore a spoked B on his jersey for the first three years of his career.
Hamilton, who continued to heat up offensively in his first year with Carolina and has put up three goals and seven points in these playoffs, knows what his teammates will be up against. He also credits his time in Boston with helping make him the player he is today.
“Great players, great people,” Hamilton said. “When I was there, just to be able to learn from those guys and see how they conducted themselves every day, I think that helped me a lot as a young guy so the guys like [defenseman Zdeno Chara], Bergeron, they’re the ultimate leaders and ultimate pros and just so good at everything on and off the ice. So just to be able to learn from them was huge for me.”
While shutting down Boston’s top line will be the Canes’ first priority, the team also knows Boston brings a deeper lineup than just one line, with other solid options such as David Krejci, Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk and Marcus Johansson.
“They have a lot of other weapons too,” said head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “Matchups and that, you look at the road records of most teams, they’re pretty good. So I think it’s overblown. Obviously, it’s nice to know you can have that last change and you can for sure get what you want but at the end of the day, teams playing at this time of year, they have good players so everybody should be able to play against everybody.”
While Boston hasn’t been to the conference finals since 2013, a lot of its 2011 Stanley Cup Championship core remains in place, and the Bruins will be hungry.
Perhaps no one understands that better than the Canes captain Justin Williams, who has earned the nickname “Mr. Game Seven” for his propensity to score clutch playoff goals and is looking for a chance to add to his three Stanley Cup rings.
“They have a championship pedigree,” Williams said. “Their core has won; their core is proven. They haven’t been to the conference finals in five or six years, something like that. They’re hungry, they’re obviously motivated and I’m looking forward to the great challenge.”
Carolina will counter Boston’s top guns with Staal, Williams and forwards Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.
After a slow start, Carolina’s top Finnish duo has heated up, with Aho sitting at four goals and nine points through two rounds, and Teravainen at six and nine. That pair had success against the Bruins in the regular season, and the Canes will need more of that in this series.
For Aho, who’s enjoyed his first go-round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, this is another chance to rise to the occasion.
“I’m enjoying every day,” Aho said. “This time of year, this is what we play for. When you actually think that way, I don’t think there’s any pressure. It’s just hard work and you enjoy it. You can’t really feel pressure when you think that way.”
The aforementioned forwards will also look for help from the likes of Andrei Svechnikov and Nino Niederreiter, and the surprising Warren Foegele, who has five goals and nine points to tie with Teravainen for the team lead among forwards.
The team will need its depth against a deep Bruins D corps that includes ageless wonder Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy, though McAvoy will sit out game one following a suspension for an illegal check to the head in game six against Columbus.
The Canes’ shooters will also be facing the red-hot Rask, who has a 2.02 goals-against average and .938 save percentage in the playoffs.
Who Carolina will counter within the first game remains a mystery. Petr Mrazek was stellar against the Capitals and shut out the Islanders in game one, but suffered a lower-body injury part way through game two.
Curtis McElhinney stepped seamlessly into the void, allowing just four goals in the remainder of game two, three and four and stopping 94.7 percent of the shots he’s faced. Brind’Amour has yet to reveal his game one starter, but either has proved to be capable of matching Rask.
“He’s been great in the playoffs and even in the regular season,” Mrazek said. “The challenge is always to beat the goalie who’s on the other side of the ice. It doesn’t matter if it’s Tuukka or anybody else.”
The Canes could get forward Micheal Ferland, who has been out with an upper-body injury since game three of the Washington series, back Thursday, and should get him back at some point in the series.
The Hurricanes faced the Bruins during their last playoff appearance, dispatching Boston in seven games on Scott Walker’s overtime winner to reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009.
The Canes come into the series winners of six straight games. Game one is Thursday at 8 p.m. and game two Sunday at 3 p.m. The series will shift to PNC Arena next Tuesday and Thursday for games three and four, both with 8 p.m. puck drops.