Carolina has been one of the NHL’s best teams all season, a picture of consistency thanks to a well-balanced group from top to bottom. The Hurricanes won the Metropolitan Division as a result of that effort, but in the Eastern Conference, there are no rewards for regular-season success. Every draw is tough, and unfortunately for the Hurricanes, they drew the big bad Bruins in Round 1.
It’s a team that Carolina dominated during the regular season, but the playoffs are a different beast, one that Boston is well-versed in. The Bruins have come on strong in the second half, as they always do, and that leaves the series hanging in the balance. This unsurprisingly projects to be the tightest matchup of the opening round.
Who will prevail? Flip a coin.
The odds here are virtually 50-50 and an extra percentage point lean toward Boston might as well be a rounding error. This will be a tightly contested matchup based on the talent on each roster.
But there are three arguments that suggest it might not be as tight as the model predicts — and only one works in Carolina’s favor. That would be the season series going decisively to Carolina — a sweep in commanding fashion. That’s not accounted for here, and the small sample may not be representative of what’s to come. The playoffs are different, and the two arguments against Carolina are a bit more concerning.
The first is the heavy-hockey element. Carolina is feisty, but the Bruins are bigger and more physical, and if that’s a factor in this series, it will push it in Boston’s direction.
The other argument is much more concerning: Frederik Andersen’s potential absence could be a problem for Carolina. It’s looking very unlikely he’ll be available for Game 1, and the odds here reflect that … and only that. If he misses Game 2 and beyond, the series drifts further and further in Boston’s direction. Goaltending was one of Carolina’s potential advantages in this series, and the absence of Andersen throws a wrench into that.
If he’s not available for a majority of this series, it’s going to be an uphill battle. Still, it’s one Carolina has built up all season for. The Hurricanes were the division winners for a reason. They’re a team the model likely underrates. They have the tools, talent and system to prevail.
Carolina is legitimately one of the best teams in the league on both ends of the ice, by the numbers. The Corsi Canes earned their nickname all season long and matched that volume shooting with quality chances. They finished the regular season on a high, with one of the best shot rates in the league at five-on-five and one of the best expected goal rates at five-on-five.
But they’re going against one of the best teams at shutting down offense. Boston keeps its opponents out of the home plate area, insulating its goaltenders from quality shots at the best rate in the league – something the Bruins maintained over the last month of play. That stout defense will be tested against an aggressive offensive team.
The Bruins aren’t the only strong defensive team in this matchup, though. The Hurricanes have been the No. 1 team at limiting their opponents’ shots and have taken strides in protecting the scoring areas over the past month of play. They’re going to need to keep that up with their current goaltending situation, which has unsurprisingly led to a higher rate of goals allowed in recent weeks.
While Boston is a good team offensively — and has improved over the past month in its below-the-surface numbers — it’s not quite at the overwhelming level of the Hurricanes. The Bruins have suffered through one of the lowest shooting percentages in the league, though. The expectation should be for that to rebound closer to the mean because they have the finishing talent — and that could prove tricky with Carolina’s goaltending in mind.
Neither team has had too much luck on the power play, especially as of late. The Hurricanes create more than their opponents but haven’t had the results to show for it, with an actual goals rate of 3.91 per 60 minutes when the expected rate is closer to nine. It could help that the Bruins’ penalty killing has slipped a bit lately.
Boston’s star-studded power play hasn’t quite produced the expected results, and that’ll be hard to change matching up against the league’s best penalty kill. The Hurricanes take a lot of penalties, but they’ve managed to mitigate the damage with a true power kill that drives play out of their own zone and creates chaos for their opponent. The team does the work in front of the net to ease the workload of its goaltenders. They just need the goaltenders to respond well to it.
Goaltending is going to be a focal point in this series for the Hurricanes. Andersen’s bounce-back season has landed him second in the league with more than 28 goals saved above expected. Private models that account for pre-shot movement show a lower number than the one based on public data, but they still hold him as one of the better goaltenders in the league. He’s projected to be worth four wins, a big upgrade from Antti Raanta’s 1.6.
Raanta is a fine backup and saved 7.8 more goals than expected this season, but he has durability concerns as well. The other option is Pyotr Kochetkov, who is an unproven commodity with just three games of NHL experience to his name. With the Hurricanes’ defense playing at such a high level, average netminding could be enough — but that’s something that’s tricky to bet on when going up against the star power of the Bruins.
Even without Andersen, the Hurricanes hold the goaltending edge, though. Boston’s goalie situation looks fluid, as well, with both Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman looking like viable options. The duo split the net evenly this season, with 41 games apiece, and Ullmark came out on top with a .917 save percentage and 2.4 goals allowed above expected. That should mean he gets the first crack at the starter’s role in Game 1, as Swayman sported a .913 save percentage and allowed 3.7 goals above expected. Either way, it’s a weakness for the team — one that would’ve been easier to exploit if Carolina didn’t have its own goaltending issues to worry about.
In front of the goalies are two very strong defenses led by two of the best all-around defenders in the league, Jaccob Slavin and Charlie McAvoy.
Slavin’s one of the best shutdown defenders in the league, even though he doesn’t fit the traditional one-dimensional, physical build that can be expected of that role. He’s actually one of the least physical defensemen in the league, using his positioning and stick to close off lanes to incoming opponents, retrieve pucks and turn play around. Few can clear the zone as effectively as Slavin. And there’s a discipline to his game that makes him all the more effective; he has just five minor infractions across a 79-game season. That all carries over to the penalty kill, as well, as he has one of the largest shorthanded impacts in the league.
What holds his projected value back is his play on the other side of the ice. The Hurricanes are still a strong offensive team with him deployed, but he doesn’t have the point totals of other No. 1 defensemen in the league — not at five-on-five or on the power play, where he plays on the second unit.
The offensive aspects are left to his partner, Tony DeAngelo, who took the place of Dougie Hamilton on that top pairing. Together, Slavin and DeAngelo are worth about 5.2 projected wins, which does stack up well against the Bruins’ leading duo. However, the model does tend to overrate the offense DeAngelo brings, so that may project more value than the Hurricanes will actually get. Still, DeAngelo has had a fine season alongside Slavin, who can mitigate the defensive lapses in his game and remain steady when DeAngelo opts to rove up the ice. His time away from the shutdown defenseman is another story entirely. The pair has earned a 60 percent expected goals rate in their time together.
The key for DeAngelo is going to be taking inspiration from his partner’s disciplined game when the pressure rises in the playoffs. While he drew 11 minors, he still ended the year with a negative differential. Carolina may have an elite penalty kill, but it needs to try to limit its time against the Bruins’ power play.
McAvoy’s value used to carry the same issues as Slavin — lessened by a lack of points, thanks to being stuck on the second power-play unit. Last season, he was right around 2.8 wins himself, but he took a massive step forward in 2021-22 as his offensive game blossomed and he continued to grow into arguably the game’s best shutdown defenceman. By GSVA, only Cale Makar provided more value to his team among defenders than McAvoy’s five wins of value, and much of that came on the defensive side of the puck. McAvoy’s defensive rating was nearly 10 goals better than the next best defenseman.
While that’s partially because of his incredible smarts and defensive zone instincts, it’s also in part because of his terrific ability to move the puck up ice. McAvoy commands the pace of play better than anyone at five-on-five, earning a 63 percent expected goals rate on the season. Among defenders who’ve played 1,000 minutes, it’s the third-highest mark since 2007-08. The duel between him and Slavin as to who can push play more effectively will be a treat to watch for those following closely.
It goes beyond those two, though, as both teams have pretty strong defensive depth, creating a stacked top four on both sides.
For the Hurricanes’ second pair, that’s Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce. Gone are the days when Carolina stacked its top two on the same pairing; instead the Hurricanes are able to split their two best defensive defenders in the top four. Pesce can be counted on to hold the blue line, not allowing many entries against or chances off of the entries that do slip by. This has proven to be a better position for Skjei compared to his last couple of years in New York.
The Bruins’ top four is augmented by Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo, who are both terrific at shutting down teams. Grzelcyk has spent a lot of the year with McAvoy, and the duo put up some ridiculous numbers together, but his small frame may mean sliding down to the second pair in the playoffs. He pairs nicely with Carlo, adding some much-needed puck-moving utility to the combo. Carlo defends well, but the rest of his game is lacking. He’s at his best with a player who has Grzelcyk’s skillset, and Carlo’s size should help shield the small-statured defender.
Grzelcyk’s size is likely one reason Boston prioritized getting another top-four defender at the deadline. The Bruins paid a hefty price to acquire Hampus Lindholm, but he’s fit like a glove so far next to McAvoy on the top pair, allowing Grzelcyk to shift away from top matchups. Lindholm looked like a player in decline with Anaheim, but he’s been rejuvenated in Boston. In 131 minutes with McAvoy and Lindholm together, the Bruins earned two-thirds of the expected goals and outscored opponents 12-3. Lindholm’s presence makes the team’s defense much deeper.
The defense is mostly a wash, but the edge up front belongs to Boston thanks to the team’s star power. As long as Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak continue to play elite-level hockey, that’s a story that won’t change.
The Bruins split the trio up this year, a move that’s paid pretty big dividends in adding balance to their attack. Bergeron and Marchand have continued to crush minutes no matter who’s on the right side while Pastrnak has been allowed to feast on secondary competition. It’s a matchup nightmare.
What Bergeron and Marchand have accomplished this season has been really special with the duo earning 70 percent of the expected goals while playing together. Seventy. That’s an unheard of mark over 700 or so minutes as the dynamic duo’s chemistry continues to grow and evolve. They own the puck and that’s thanks to Marchand’s dynamic ability with it and Bergeron’s smarts away from it. The latter looks like a shoo-in for his record fifth Selke after putting up the best defensive numbers of an already illustrious career. Together, this duo allows only 1.47 expected goals against per 60. It’s going to be very difficult for Carolina to get by these two.
That the duo can impose their will on anyone regardless of the man on the right side is a luxury for Boston because it means freeing up Pastrnak to drive his own line. And he has. The second line has also been dominant this year and though Pastrnak started slow offensively he eventually found his form ending the season with 77 points in 72 games – and getting back to the 40-goal mark. He’s a pure sniper, but there’s more to his game than that. You don’t play for so long with Bergeron and Pastrnak without picking up a few things, and his on-ice numbers are still sparkling this season, despite the time apart from that duo. For the year he had a 59 percent expected goals rate.
Between Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho, the Hurricanes have some elite talent of their own leading their forward group. It’s just not on Boston’s level. Aho’s a high-end two-way center whose disruptive game can make a difference in this series. Aggressive forechecking is a defining characteristic of this Carolina team, as represented by the play of its top center. Aho can create offense off the rush, or recover dump-ins and move play back up the ice to spark cycle plays. He’s likely going to see a heavy dose of the Bruins’ best, seeing as he goes up against top competition consistently.
On the wing, there’s Svechnikov, who set career highs with 30 goals and 69 points on the season in 78 games. Through each year of his NHL career so far, he’s been a force at five-on-five in the offensive zone, driving to that net-front area. He’s a creative player offensively, with the hands to do some damage in this series with his passing or finishing ability. Lately, Aho and Svechnikov have been playing together on the top line, alongside rookie Seth Jarvis, driving play to a tune of a 57.7 percent expected goals rate, which they’ve been matching with actual results.
While the Svechnikov-Aho duo puts in the work that can make them such a difficult opponent to match up against, they still project to fall short of the Bruins’ elite, with a collective projected value of six wins to their nine.
Regardless, there’s still high-end talent below that top line in Carolina, with Teuvo Teravainen, whose effective two-way play continues to go under the radar, and Vincent Trocheck down the middle. The pair can match up in value to Taylor Hall and Erik Haula, but Boston blows them out of the water with Pastrnak rounding out the group versus deadline acquisition Max Domi for the Hurricanes.
Boston’s top six is scary beyond the big three. Hall isn’t what he once was but remains a top-line-caliber winger, scoring 61 points this season while being his usual dominant self at five-on-five. He was Boston’s best player at entering the zone with control and was one of the league’s best players off the rush. He attacks with speed, which blends nicely with Pastrnak’s skill-set. There was a big question mark in the wake of David Krejci’s departure over who could fill his shoes and it seems Haula has been able to do just that, paired with two strong wingers. Since the promotion, he’s been incredibly productive, looking close to the player he once was at his peak. He scored 2.23 points per 60 at five-on-five this year, a first-line rate.
Haula’s resurgence has been a blessing for Boston, considering he was acquired at the bargain bin during the offseason, but he isn’t the only one. Jake DeBrusk’s bounce-back campaign has been a big story in Boston, and he’s back to looking like a legitimate top-six talent. He struggled mightily in Boston’s bottom six, but put him with some talented players and he can thrive. His ability to hold his own next to Bergeron and Marchand was the key to Boston finding more balance in the top six. His speed and tenacity make him an excellent forechecker.
Below that top six, the depth advantage goes to the Hurricanes. That’s why Carolina may be hoping the output from its forward group can be greater than the sum of the parts. While there isn’t that same level of high-end talent, all four lines can try to wear down the Bruins’ best. Throughout the bottom six, there are players who can use the body to separate players from the puck and embody that “heavy” style of hockey that the playoffs are known for.
The Hurricanes’ third line can grind it out against top players and create offense off the forecheck and will likely be deployed to pressure the Bruins’ top six, along with the Aho line. They create quality over quantity offense and are incredibly stingy back in their own zone, which has helped them outscore opponents 34-13. Together, they’re projected to be worth 5.1 wins, while Boston’s third line is at 2.9 collectively.
Nino Niederreiter adds a scoring touch to the third line, alongside defensive center Jordan Staal. Jesper Fast is the ideal utility player whose playing style has meshed well with the Hurricanes over the past two seasons. He’s one of the best defensive forwards in the league, and while not an offensive generator himself, has shown that he can slot up higher in the lineup to skate alongside top players when asked. When a team looks to a two-way player to stabilize a scoring line, there’s a difference between bringing defense at the expense of offense and legitimately keeping up. Fast falls into the latter category, which makes him very useful, and he’s currently slotted in the most appropriate position for his skill set.
Carolina has options for its fourth line, too. Martin Necas has slid down the lineup to play with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jordan Martinook. Derek Stepan and Steven Lorentz are available if the coaches opt to mix things up — both would project higher than veteran Martinook if they slot in his place. Any combination of these players will uphold the Hurricanes’ quintessential style of play. Their presence over Necas, however, is a step down in value.
The Bruins aren’t a completely top-heavy team, but going up against Carolina makes the bottom six look like a real issue.
The always underrated Craig Smith was a second-line mainstay last season and has remained effective lower in the lineup, but he’s the only needle-mover here. He’s a pure volume shooter, which pairs well with Charlie Coyle’s modest playmaking ability. Though his point totals may not look impressive, Smith’s efficiency remains top-notch, as he scored 1.04 goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five and 2.07 points per 60. The former ranked fourth on the team and 64th leaguewide. That’s impressive for someone on the third line. And, of course, he maintained his usual ability in driving play, with a 57 percent expected goals rate.
That’s fine, but the rest leaves a lot to be desired. The bottom trio was outscored heavily this year and has a hard time creating offense. That puts more pressure on the top six to score.
Coyle’s play on the third line is a bigger issue, though, as his 52 percent expected goals rate, while fine in a vacuum, was one of the worst marks on the team. In each of the past two seasons, the Bruins have been significantly better without him on the ice — and while that’s obvious based on who else is on the team, the degree of it is a bit alarming. His scoring picked up a bit this season, which is a plus, and he played fine with Smith, but his inability to drive play might be a liability in this series.
The bottom line
This is the closest series of the first round, and your preferred outcome may depend on what you value most. If it’s high-end talent and star power, then it’s hard not to like what Boston has to offer. Very few teams can stack up to a quartet of Marchand, Bergeron, Pastrnak and McAvoy, and the Hurricanes aren’t one of them. If it’s depth and a complete team effort you think will take a team far, then it’s hard not to like Carolina’s roster. The Hurricanes have fewer holes and a more balanced group overall.
The biggest X-factor will come between the pipes, though. If Andersen can return quickly and be the dominant presence he was during the season, that’s an edge for Carolina over a very inexperienced goalie tandem. But the more games he misses, the more it’s advantage Bruins, whose deficiency in net wouldn’t be as large, leaving a more talented roster to take center stage.
It’s going to be a tantalizing series to watch between two relatively even teams. May the best one win.
Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Hockey Stat Cards and the NHL.
(Top photo of Brad Marchand and Tony DeAngelo: Fred Kfoury III / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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