Everything you need to know for the 2019 Eastern Conference Final between the Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes.
The Eastern Conference Final pits the league’s most lovable jerks against a couple jerks when the Hurricanes face off against the Bruins on Thursday, May 9 at 8 p.m. on NBCSN. The Bruins are in their first conference final since 2013 while the Hurricanes are hoping to ride the Storm Surge to their first Stanley Cup Final in 13 years. Here’s what you need to know before Game 1:
How They Got Here
Boston was one of the league’s most consistent teams during the regular season, and it finished with the third-best record in the NHL despite losing Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara for significant amounts of time. The Bruins fell behind 2–1 in Round 1 against the Maple Leafs, but ultimately notched another Game 7 victory against Toronto. They then ended the Blue Jackets’ surprise run in similar fashion, falling behind 2–1 in the series before reeling off three straight victories to win in six games.
The Hurricanes were dead last in the Metropolitan Division in December, and then the Storm Surge washed over the NHL. Carolina rode renewed chemistry—fostered by innovative post-game celebrations after each win—to a wild-card berth and gleefully donned the “bunch of jerks” moniker through the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs. After surviving a seven-game series against the Capitals, the Hurricanes dominated and swept the Islanders in the second round.
The Bruins “Big 3” gets all of the spotlight and deservedly so. Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Pastrnak all recorded career highs in points this year and they form one of the most feared first lines in the NHL. Reunited and revitalized, the trio scored six goals in Boston’s three-straight wins against Columbus after vanishing for a four-game stretch.
The 2019 playoffs have looked like Bizarro World at points, and add “Boston’s secondary scoring steps up while primary scoring dries out” as one of its landmarks. Third liners Charlie Coyle, Danton Heinen and deadline acquisition Marcus Johansson have contributed 18 points in 13 games, while depth forwards like Joakim Nordstrom and Sean Kuraly have added crucial goals along the way. That’s all without talking about David Krejci (third on the team in points) and Bruins fans are still waiting for the emergence of Jake DeBrusk.
Where Boston is headlined by star power, the Hurricanes’ forwards are led by a youth movement buckled down by two playoff mainstays. Teuvo Teravainen, 24, leads Carolina with six goals, the fourth-most goals by any player in the playoffs. Sebastian Aho, 20, has cooled off after a breakout season but should benefit from the extra rest supplied by the team’s sweep of the Islanders. Justin Williams, a.k.a. Mr. Game 7, plays alongside Aho while Jordan Staal, with 84 games of playoff experience, solidifies the Hurricane’s top line next to Teravainen.
Rookie winger Warren Foegele has played his way into top-six-forward minutes and ranks second on the team in total points. Andrei Svechnikov returned from a concussion sustained after fighting Alex Ovechkin in the first round and is Carolina’s most skilled winger after their top guys. Beyond that, there’s a drop off from Carolina’s bottom two lines compared to Boston.
Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara have long been the backbone of the Bruins blue line, but the unit revolves around a 21-year-old Charlie McAvoy and 22-year-old Brandon Carlo. McAvoy—suspended for Game 1 for an illegal check to the head on Josh Anderson—has logged more ice time than anyone this postseason other than Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. Playing alongside Chara, McAvoy deftly moves the puck in the Bruins transition game and in the offensive zone.
Carlo locked down Artemi Panarin and limited the Russian winger to one goal in the last four games of the second round. The third-year defenseman has grown into a steady, neutralizing force on the backend and gives the Bruins not one, but two shutdown pairings. Chara, with 128 more games of playoff experience than McAvoy and Carlo combined, has been exploitable but is still an imposing physical presence. Krug can be counted on for offensive production from the blue line, and Connor Clifton and Matt Grzelcyk form a more-than-serviceable third pairing.
Top to bottom, there might not be a defensive corps that has as many skilled skaters and proficient puck movers as the Hurricanes. The unit is highlighted by Justin Faulk and Dougie Hamilton, but now Jaccob Slavin has reinforced Carolina’s backend and has emerged as one of the best blueliners of the postseason. Slavin has added offensive production to his staunch defensive play—he’s the only defenseman remaining who’s averaging a point per game in the playoffs.
The Hurricanes’ defensive unit faltered against the Capitals but rebounded and surrendered just two even-strength goals to the Islanders in the second round. They’re counted on to drive the offense in spots and they’re as big of a reason to Carolina’s success as anything else.
Tuukka Rask has been the Bruins best player throughout the postseason. He held the Maple Leafs to one goal in Game 7 of the first round, outdueled Sergei Bobrovsky in the second round and has maintained the best save percentage of any goalie who has played at least five games in the playoffs. With Ben Bishop eliminated, there’s no one better netminder than Rask left in the playoffs.
Backup Curtis McElhinney has taken over goaltending duties after Petr Mrazek left Game 2 with a lower-body injury against the Islanders. McElhinney posted a .947 save percentage in his three appearances and won three in a row to sweep the Islanders. Mrazek returned to practice Monday, and Rod Brind’Amour has a potential goalie controversy brewing ahead of the Eastern Conference Final. The tandem split time during the regular season, and both Mrazek and McElhinney provide slightly better than league average play in net.
Boston wins if…
Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak are the best players on the ice, as they should be. Beyond that, the Bruins need Rask not to implode and just enough secondary scoring. The Bruins thrive when they can pummel teams with their forecheck and they shouldn’t have too much trouble doing that against the Hurricanes.
Carolina wins if…
Their offense pins Boston in its own zone. The Bruins are a more complete team this year, but the Lightning made quick work of the Bruins in 2018 by forechecking them into oblivion. On the backend, Carolina’s defense needs to move and transition the puck quickly and cleanly while also limiting Boston’s Big 3. The Hurricanes don’t want to get into another high-scoring series as they did in the first round. It’s a tall task, but these bunch of jerks have defied expectations before.
In a playoffs marked by unpredictability, the Bruins have proved their standing as one of the NHL’s elite teams in defeating the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets. The Hurricanes can and will challenge the Bruins with their style of play, but on most nights they are going to be outmatched by a better team. Rask is playing too well, the Big 3 can’t be silenced forever, Boston has renewed depth and, ultimately, too much for Carolina to handle.
Boston in six