It is hard to believe that a series featuring the number one ranked team in the Eastern Conference will be completely overshadowed, but that is what happens when Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin meet in the second round of the playoffs. While there may be more drama between Pittsburgh and Washington, the hockey itself will probably be just as good, if not better, in Boston and Carolina.
Considering Tim Thomas is up for the Vezina Trophy and is arguably the odds-on favourite for the award, you would think that the Bruins would hold somewhat of an advantage in net. However, I do not think that is the case. Now, it is not that I have a problem with Thomas’s game. In fact, I believe Thomas is terrific. His mentality, style and perseverance make him a top NHL netminder and he has proven difficult to beat all season long.
Unfortunately for Bruins fans, I do not see Thomas having an advantage in net over former Stanley Cup champion Cam Ward. The former Red Deer Rebel has been terrific since the second half of the season began and has been the constant force moving the Hurricanes from the outside of the playoff race, to a legitimate playoff contender. His play against New Jersey only cements the fact that he is a great playoff netminder and he should give the Bruins all they can handle in Round Two.
I have to admit that Carolina’s defense impressed during Round One. With Tim Gleason leading the way in terms of physicality and toughness, the Canes have a nice mix of puck-movers like Pitkanen, Corvo and Babchuk, to go along with Niclas Wallin and the smooth-skating Dennis Seidenberg. With a nice balance on defence, the Hurricanes proved that their no-name unit can do the job effectively.
Concern: Whether this fast-skating group can handle the size of the Bruins up front?
While the Hurricanes’ impressed me in Round One, they just do not have someone like Zdeno Chara to put them over the top. Chara is just that good and can change the game in so many ways. Whether it is on the power play, penalty kill or even strength, he is a force to be reckoned with. Combine Chara with the speed and skill of Dennis Wideman, and you have a nice 1-2 defence combination. Behind Chara and Wideman, the Bruins have aggressive veterans like Aaron Ward, Steve Montador and Shane Hnidy who bring some great playoff experience to the table. Let’s not forget big youngster Mark Stuart, who has quietly become a reliable defenceman for Boston. Something to watch for is the Bruins missing fleet-footed Matt Hunwick this round more than last.
Concern: Whether the big physical defence can skate with the speedy Canes forward?
Edge: Boston because of Chara but I see a high-scoring series for both sides.
These teams are loaded up front. In Boston, the Bruins line up Marc Savard, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron up the middle; that is plain scary. Additionally, their wing depth is terrific, as there is a perfect mix of size and skill. With scorers Phil Kessel, Michael Ryder and Mark Recchi and physical players like Milan Lucic, Blake Wheeler, the Bruins can play anyway you want. The fact that this team does not have to rely on one, or even two, lines to do it all is probably the team’s biggest strength. Think about it. We just listed off eight quality forwards and have yet to mention Chuck Kobasew, the defensive expert P.J. Axelsson, face-off specialist Stephane Yelle or tough-guy Shawn Thornton. So, yes, the Bruins are stacked at forward.
Concern: I really have no concerns with this tremendous forward group.
As for the Hurricanes forwards, they are nothing to scoff at. Led by Eric Staal, who was dominating in Round One against New Jersey, the Canes come at you from all angles as well. Staal lined up alongside Ray Whitney and Chad Larose for most of the first round and proved to be almost unstoppable by series end. If the Hurricanes are able to get Matt Cullen, Erik Cole and Rod Brind’Amour playing as well as their fourth line players like Ryan Bayda, Jussi Jokinen and Scott Walker, then this series will be too close to call.
Concern: Secondary scoring dries up like it did in Round One.
Edge: Boston but that can be equalized if Carolina’s capable secondary scorers turn it up.
For all the GMs keen on hiring new coaches out of the AHL (don’t get me wrong I see that rationale), they may want to look at the success of two coaches who have been fired a few times over the past few years. That is because Claude Julien and Paul Maurice have their respective teams playing above the expectations of just about everyone in hockey. No one expected the Bruins to be this dominant in 2008/09 and no one expected the Hurricanes to suddenly surge through the end of the season like they did (On that note, for all the people saying Erik Cole was the sole reason for the team’s turnaround, did you even see Cole in Round One?). These two coaches know what they are doing and I don’t see an edge either way.
In terms of special teams, the Bruins have a distinct advantage on the power play. With Chara and Savard leading the way, Boston finished the regular season ranked fourth with the man-advantage. On the other hand, Carolina finished a middling eighteenth. If you think that Carolina has an advantage on the penalty-kill, you won’t be happy to find out that Boston finished seven spots ahead of Carolina in penalty-killing percentage during the season at twelfth. Boston’s advantage at special teams may be the most important factor in determining who wins this series.
As for intangibles, both teams are willing to throw their bodies around and have great internal leadership. I don’t see there being much of an edge in this category.
Edge: Boston because the Bruins’ power play is that scary and both units present problems for any penalty killing unit.
How the Hurricanes win this series: Cam Ward steals at least one game, the Hurricanes forwards continuously use their speed on the Bruins defence and Carolina does not lose one game at home.
How the Bruins win this series: They cycle the puck down low and dominate the time of possession, continue their special teams success and bring intensity every night (unlike their performances against lowly Montreal).
Winner: Bruins in 7.