NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals Preview
Brett Talley breaks down the Eastern Conference Finals featuring the Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes.
While this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs have seen plenty of upsets, the Boston Bruins managed to avoid the carnage. The B’s finished the regular season tied for the second most points in the league, so it’s no surprise to see them in the Eastern Conference Finals. Their opponent, the Carolina Hurricanes, is the surprise team of the East as the wild card team was 23rd in the league in points on January 2. As a result, it’s not a surprise that Boston is a -150 favorite to win the series with Carolina at +130. Once you take the juice out, it’s basically -140/+140, which means Vegas thinks Boston has about a 58 percent chance to win the series.
You may be wondering how Carolina went from 23rd in the league almost halfway into the season to the Conference Finals. The honest answer is probably just a course correction in luck.
Through January 1, the Canes ranked second in the league in Corsi For percentage at 55.73 percent at five-on-five (score and venue adjusted). That means they had 55.73 percent of the shot attempts in their games to that point with only San Jose having a higher percentage of shots relative to their opponents. Carolina also ranked third in high danger chances for percentage. The Canes were generating many more shot attempts and many more high danger scoring chances than their opponents, yet they were losing more than they won. That’s tough to do, but the Canes did it by having the lowest PDO in the league through that point. PDO is shooting percentage plus save percentage. The league average is pretty much 1.000, and Carolina was well off that mark at .970 on New Year’s Day. PDO is a notoriously fickle statistic subject to regression.
From that point on, Carolina ranked fourth in CF% and tenth in HDCF%, but their PDO luck reversed and was 1.011 for the rest of the season, which was eighth best in the league in that time frame. For the entire season, Carolina finished second in CF%, third in HDCF% and 25th in PDO. Again, all of these numbers are at 5v5, score and venue adjusted.
After all that, you might be thinking that the Canes are a dominant puck possession team who can’t be stopped without bad luck holding them down. But Boston does not rank too shabbily in these same categories. The Bruins finished the regular season sixth in CF%, 13th in HDCF% and a reasonable 11th in PDO. Since January 1, they’re actually ahead of Carolina in CF% ranking one spot ahead of them in third. While Carolina has been one of the best five-on-five teams in the league all season, they’re running into a near equal in that respect at this point.
Where these two teams are not as equal is on special teams. If you add up their success rates on the power play and penalty kill, Boston was at 105.82 percent, which was the third best mark in the regular season. Carolina’s total was 99.4 percent, which was 18th in the league. Carolina has a slightly better penalty kill than Boston, but Boston’s advantage on the power play is the big difference. Boston scored on 25.9 percent of their power plays, third best in the league, while Carolina scored on 17.81 percent of their power plays, which was 20th in the league.
As far as the individual matchups go, everything revolves around Boston’s top line. The trio of Patrice Bergeron with David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand on his wings ranked 10th among line combos in goal scoring at even strength during the regular season. Per The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, that trio plus the D-man that joins them on the top power play unit, Torey Krug, all ranked top 10 in the league in power play point rate. This is as elite as a line can get and they have a hell of an offensive blueliner playing with them on the job.
When the series is in Boston, the expectation is that Bergeron’s line will see more of the Sebastian Aho line. But when the series is in Carolina, the Canes will likely use Jordan Staal’s line to matchup with the Bergeron line. When picking between Carolina’s top six, it would make sense to avoid the line that’s likely to matchup with Bergeron’s.
Jake DeBrusk is the guy who gets to join Boston’s top liners on the top PP unit. He plays on the second line with David Krejci, and Boston used Pastrnak as the second wing on the second line a fair bit in the second round. Anytime Pastrnak is slated to skate with the second line, that line would get a bump in value. Of the depth lines, Boston’s third line with Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson is probably the most dangerous offensive line from the bottom sixes. As for defensemen, Krug is the obvious stud, but Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin is a stud in his own right. Slavin has yet to score a goal this postseason, but he has 11 assists in 11 games.
The Bruins likely have the edge in net this series, though Carolina may not be using their best goalie. Petr Mrazek was their guy to start the postseason, and they played him until an injury forced Curtis McElhinney into net. McElhinney was excellent in his three playoff starts with a .947 SV%. McElhinney has better numbers than Mrazek in the last few seasons, but with Mrazek reportedly healthy, Carolina likely goes with Mrazek. They’ll face Tuukka Rask who has a stellar .938 SV% in 13 postseason starts. Rask easily has the longest history of quality goaltending among these three goalies, so the edge is Boston’s in net though it narrows if McElhinney gets the work.
The pick: Boston in 5.