NHL playoffs preview: Can Bruins be Hurricanes' foil again?
Though it may not compare to Colorado or Toronto, there should be a measure of intense pressure on both the Carolina Hurricanes and Boston Bruins in the NHL's 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Carolina has been one of the league's best teams for several seasons but has ran into a wall in each of the last three postseasons, losing to opponents able to take their games to the next level. The Bruins have twice been that foil, interestingly enough, claiming 4-0 and 4-1 series victories in back-to-back playoffs over the Hurricanes in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Most recently, Carolina was out-classed by the Tampa Bay Lightning, falling completely flat in a third consecutive postseason. While there's really no shame in these losses on the surface, and picking up at least one series victory in three straight seasons is mighty impressive, something has been missing for this group when the competition truly ramps up. Putting a finger on that hasn't been easy.
The backdrop of playoff failure made Carolina's offseason so interesting. Rather than desperately trying to keep the blossoming talent on the roster, it let star defenseman Dougie Hamilton walk in free agency and traded Calder Trophy nominee Alex Nedeljkovic in a puzzling effort to flip the goaltending position. At the time it was worth asking if the Hurricanes were trending in the wrong direction after running into a clear class divide three years running.
Sure enough, the calculations made weren't too far off, if at all. Despite losing a top defenseman and a hot and high-performing prospect in net, the Hurricanes remain the NHL's stingiest team behind a revamped defensive core and a William M. Jennings-level goaltending duo led by Frederik Andersen. They only allowed 200 goals this year, which was the fewest in the NHL. Structure can be a powerful thing.
Even so, the same questions remain. Can they rise to the occasion? Can they take their game to a new level? Can they survive a Boston team which poked holes in Rod Brind'Amour's system in consecutive postseason trips? The evidence that Carolina is different is scarce.
The Bruins have the same pressures to win but the situation is far different compared to Carolina. It's hard to spin the narrative that the franchise is still living off its latest Stanley Cup because there are just two holdovers from the 2011 triumph. But as long as Patrice Bergeron is the centrepiece of the franchise, the eras haven't officially transitioned. In fact, the investment in these last few seasons have been more about maximizing the final years with Bergeron as they have been about textbook team building.
Extending a competitive window in order to maximize a career, it seems that how the Bruins perform in the first round, and perhaps beyond, will dictate the future Hall of Famer's next steps. If that isn't pressure, what is?
Whether it's an immense success or an abrupt disappointment, this could be the final realistic chance at a Stanley Cup for these Bruins, which would leave the franchise to face its uncertain future. Despite the year-to-year situation with Bergeron, the team has had to invest major money and term at every corner of the roster in order to optimize the captain's surroundings. One would think there's some sort of reckoning on the opposite side of Bergeron's career.
But despite the strength of their first-round opponent, the Bruins have caught a break (or fashioned their own luck), by leaving the Atlantic Division. The path to a conference final is far easier having crossed over to the Metropolitan Division, meaning one last run with Bergeron could potentially be a deep one.
What have you done for me lately?
Neither the Hurricanes or Bruins have had major disruptions to their seasons. They've both performed at a high level for the vast majority of their schedules, each able to breeze by the 100-point threshold. If anything, the playing field has levelled between them over the last month with both teams playing .615 hockey in April before their last games of the season, which Boston decided to punt to set up this matchup.
But as far as recent developments go, the most consequential one is the injury to Andersen. It's expected that the potential Vezina Trophy nominee will miss the start of the series, which will saddle either Antti Raanta or rookie Pyotr Kochetkov with the blue-paint duties. Part of what makes Carolina such a great team is its ability to insulate its netminders, so perhaps losing their starter isn't as devastating for the Hurricanes as it would be for other teams. Still, it's far from ideal.
The Hurricanes will win the series if...
They have the best line on the ice. Carolina hasn't been married to a single combination for star centre Sebastian Aho this season, but whichever alignment is eventually thrown at the Bruins' top unit will, in large part, determine the direction of the series. Carolina's core has drawn comparisons to Boston's in the past. Now it's time to eclipse them.
The Bruins will win the series if...
One of Jeremy Swayman or Linus Ullmark stars. The Hurricanes direct pucks at net at a rate few can match. The chosen Boston netminder will have to be dialled in for the Bruins to win the series.
Postseason series run through Brad Marchand. Those who provide the metaphor must prove it to be true with the Lambo and the Prius on the road.
The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)
Carolina made the bet that Jaccob Slavin, and not Hamilton, was the leader and driving force behind its defensive core this summer. If the Aho line is to out-gun its top-unit counterpart, Slavin will have to be superb from the back end in support. Slavin has had an outstanding season tangling with top competition.
Boston in six.
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