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Conference Final

Bruins set for 'unique challenges' vs. Hurricanes in conference final

General manager impressed with performance, coaching staff during playoffs

by Matt Kalman / Correspondent

BOSTON -- The Boston Bruins head into the Eastern Conference Final against the Carolina Hurricanes after defeating two extremely different opponents in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were built around speed and a deep forward group, in seven games in the Eastern Conference First Round. Then Boston won the second round in six games against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had speed but also relied on grit and shot blocking in addition to an active, deep group of defensemen.

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Boston moves on to Conference Final

The Hurricanes might be a hybrid of the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets and how their rosters have been built. Game 1 of the best-of-7 series is at TD Garden on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

"Yeah, I think there are going to be some unique challenges," Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said Tuesday. "They're a strong forechecking team. They get on you and they get back up on the puck. Their back pressure's been good. Their goaltending has been excellent. … Their shooting percentage took a big jump from February on being able to score some goals and have some confidence as a result of it."

The Bruins should benefit from a little extra time off between series. After they defeated Toronto they had one day to prepare for Columbus, which had been off for nine days. They finished the Blue Jackets in six games, capped by a 3-0 win in Columbus on Monday, and avoided playing a second straight Game 7.

"Terrific," Sweeney said. "Obviously, full credit to our group to have the opportunity to move forward. Played a really tough team that presented different challenges than the first round, and we adapted.

"I think throughout the series you saw [goalie Tuukka Rask] get really dialed in, played tremendous hockey in Game 5 and 6. We had things spread around our room pretty well. We had the big line step up in Game 5, and last night we saw the depth. Obviously, we got some puck luck as well last night and found a way to win. Fortunate to be moving forward and proud of our group."

Video: Clutch Performance: Rask blanks Jackets in Game 6

The numbers prove Rask has been dialed in during the postseason. He had an .948 save percentage against Columbus and his .938 save percentage in 13 postseason games leads the NHL among goalies who have played at least four games.

In front of Rask, the Bruins have benefited from the development of young defensemen who had little playoff experience. Beyond Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug, Brandon Carlo and Connor Clifton made their playoff debuts this season, and Charlie McAvoy (18 games prior to this season) and Matt Grzelcyk (11 games) have only just begun to qualify as postseason veterans.

There's been little sign of any inexperience during the games.

"Well, again, it's a little bit about the group, I don't think there's any one player," Sweeney said. "Certainly, certain players play in different situations, and we've had players step forward and play big minutes for us. … Really, our transitional game itself, the ability to break pucks out at this time of year, is so vitally important to the way you can find a way to generate offensively.

"You realize how small the margins are in terms of winning and the ice, the lack of space 5-on-5 and what all teams try and do to you in the playoffs. … So the group has done a nice job. We've stayed, knock on wood, relatively healthy, and hopefully it remains that way."

When Sweeney took over as GM in 2015, the Bruins had just missed the playoffs. They missed again in his first season, but have qualified every season since, advancing one round further each season.

With the Bruins aiming toward bigger goals than the conference final, Sweeney didn't want to hint at any satisfaction over their progression.

"Just looking for the finish line," he said. "We've got a tough opponent in Carolina. It's just the next step. We worry about Game 1 then move on. I think our group overall has an even keel to it. Again, testament to our coaching staff and how well they prepare the players. And of course, to the players themselves."

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