There’s no doubting that the Boston Bruins will be better for Wednesday night’s Game 2 against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena.
The Boston Bruins adjusted their defense pairings to get the best out of Matt Grzelcyk slotting him with Charlie McAvoy, and by moving Hampus Lindholm to the second pairing they guarantee that at least one top pair-level defenseman will be on the ice for most of the game. There’s also every chance that Linus Ullmark will be even that much better after getting his first career playoff game out of the way in Monday night’s 5-1 loss in Game 1 of the first round series.
Certainly, it felt closer than the final score, or than the 16-1 aggregate score that the Boston Bruins lost to Carolina in three regular season meetings earlier this season.
But one thing that doesn’t seem to be a fluke or a coincidence at this point is the difficulty that the Boston Bruins have in generating real offense against a Hurricanes team that led the NHL in goals allowed this season. The Bruins have scored just one 5-on-5 goal in 12 periods of hockey against the Hurricanes and scored two goals overall against a Carolina team that’s routinely shut them down with speed, aggressiveness and some gritty play around their own net.
It was an admission made by Taylor Hall after Monday night’s Game 1 loss when he lamented how many of Boston’s 36 shots on net were from the outside rather than quality chances in and around the net. The perimeter offense isn’t going to fly in the playoffs, and it absolutely isn’t going to work against a Hurricanes team that limited opponents to just 2.38 goals per game this season.
“I’m sure you’ve guys have probably heard this a million times, but people at the net-front with good timing so they’re not able to be tied up – free sticks around their net-front, and see if we can generate some second-chance opportunities,” said Hall, who absolutely earned the right to speak his mind after Game 1 as the team’s best player with Boston’s only goal and six shot attempts in 18:31 of ice time. “There were pucks laying there. Their goalie made some really good first saves. I think playoff hockey is about hanging around the net and finding a way to score.
“You know honestly, just kind of like what they did on their first goal – a tip. Their second goal [was the result of] a lot of traffic, our goalie can’t really see [the puck in that instance]. For us, we always seem to outshoot teams but what can kind of get away from us is getting people to the net and making use of all those shots and creating second chances. So, that’s going to be a focus for us.”
This is absolutely the fallacy of falling too in love with the fancy stats within a hockey organization where players may feel like their job is done by simply pumping shots at the net, but it’s not about luck or getting a bounce. Instead, it’s about players unable, or unwilling, to get to the net-front area against a big, strong defense looking to push them out, and therefore unable to make use of the pucks being funneled to the net in the first place.
It’s highly doubtful the Boston Bruins are unwilling to pay the price for playoff success, so perhaps Game 1 will serve as a good reminder that it’s about gaining the inside ice and making Antti Raanta as they did early in the first period. That resulted in a number of times where the Carolina defense collapsed around the net and showed exactly why they were so good this season at keeping pucks from inching over the goal line.
The question, though, is how much better the Boston Bruins can get against the Hurricanes after Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand were kept off the board in Game 1 and finished a combined minus-5 while clearly not playing their best hockey. The B’s fourth line was actually their best line for the balance of the entire game before Hall, David Pastrnak and Erik Haula came alive in a third period that ultimately collapsed on the Boston Bruins.
There’s also the problem around the Boston Bruins power play that went 0-for-3 in Game 1 and is going up against the NHL’s best penalty kill this season. For a team that barely managed to break out of an 0-for-39 slump in the month of April just ahead of the postseason, the Hurricanes are not a good matchup for Boston’s best PP players to start regaining any lost confidence.
“Well, we have to [play better on the power play]. We can’t rely on our power play against the No. 1 PK, but it does have to give us some juice,” said Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “I thought the first couple, we did get some looks. The third one was disappointing. Our entries, when we did get in, we mishandled some pucks or didn’t execute once we got it back.
“It’s been a challenge the last month for us on the power play. Those guys have to take a little more ownership of it. Those are our top guys. Hopefully, they’ll be better at it [in Game 2] because we do have to get some life from it. Just because they have the top PK doesn’t mean we can’t score. We’ve done it in years past and it can certainly be a weapon if we get it going.”
After four games between these two teams this season, the lack of offense is no longer a coincidence. It’s a trend and advancing toward a pattern that could be Boston’s undoing. There’s little doubt if the Bruins don’t “get it going” offensively at both 5-on-5 and on the power play after scrounging for just one goal in Game 1, this could be a very short series indeed.