As much fun as it is to look back on the magic of the first round, it’s hard to believe that the next challenge is only two days away. Yet, that’s where we find ourselves with Game 1 of the upcoming series with Boston starting Friday night.
Coach Paul Maurice thinks that his team won’t need to make major adjustments as they switch their focus from the Devils to the Bruins. You wouldn’t know it from their 274 goals scored during the regular season – second only to Detroit – but Boston is also a team that wins with a stifling brand of defensive hockey.
No team allowed fewer goals than their 196, giving them an overall goal differential of plus-78 – easily the best in hockey and a great indicator of why they were the Eastern Conference’s best team in the regular season.
“The systems that [Boston and New Jersey] play are nearly identical,” said Maurice. “Their coach [Claude Julien] coached in New Jersey and came through that whole thing. The difference between New Jersey and Boston is that Boston doesn’t have a set checking line – a [John] Madden line – because they have enough depth that they can just run their lines. They’re a little bit bigger and they’ve got a little more speed up front, and then they’ve got some bigger bodies on the back end.”
Most notable of that group of big defensemen is 6-foot-9, 255 pound Zdeno Chara, who was recently named as a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman for the second year in a row. Chara scored 19 goals, had 31 assists and was a +23 with 95 penalty minutes during the regular season. He plays on the team’s top pairing with former Hurricane Aaron Ward.
“I think the problem with that pair, and certainly Chara, is that he’s not going to fatigue in a 25 or 27 minute game,” said Maurice. “Normally with a big guy you can wear those guys down, but this is a pretty fit athlete and he’s going to be pretty strong by the end of the game.”
Behind Chara is goaltender Tim Thomas, also a finalist to be named the best in the league at his position. Along with Steve Mason of Columbus and Niklas Backstrom of Minnesota, Thomas is up for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, and has already won a share of the Jennings trophy as part of the goaltending tandem with the fewest goals against.
With players like those, it’s easy to see why the Bruins are a great defensive team. Their prolific offense comes what they do in transition after they’ve stopped the offensive advancements of their opponents..
“I think our reaction time on change of possession is going to have to be the difference for us – how quick we can get back when they get control of it – because they transition the puck,” said Maurice. “Jersey was always puck-out-first mentality, regardless of whether it’s a play, but these guys are always looking to make plays and go.”
The first round couldn’t have been more different for the Hurricanes and Bruins. The Canes barely have any time to get right back in the thick of things, which can be good for momentum purposes but bad for fatigue. The Bruins, who had a relatively easy sweep of a struggling Montreal team, get tons of rest but will have perhaps gained a little rust during their lengthy layoff.
Whatever pros and cons might surface as a result of that situation, they aren’t likely to last past Friday’s Game 1.
“We hope [the Bruins are rusty], but I don’t think we can prepare that way to think that they’ll be anything but their best,” said Maurice. “Sure, we’re hoping it’s not smooth or easy, but a team like that, even if they’re off a little, they’re not going to be off for seven games. They’ll warm up.”
So, can the Canes do it? Besides some hiccups in Game 7 that can fortunately now be forgotten due to the victory, they seemed to get better as the series went on. If they can carry that into Boston and not spot them a game like they did at the outset of the first round, they should have a good chance.
Although the Bruins may be the better of the Hurricanes’ two playoff opponents, let’s also not forget how well the Devils played for the majority of the first round. That wasn’t a mediocre team the Hurricanes managed to beat, and I don’t know that the Bruins could have played much better than the Devils did in the first three games.
Then there’s the matter of the season series, an ugly 0-4 showing for the Canes that featured a few lopsided losses. That should be a concern, but all of those games were in December through February when Carolina had yet to discover its best hockey of the season. Had they met in March, things could have been different.
Here’s hoping for another great series, although the last one will be awfully difficult to top, win or lose.