( Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images )

By: Ryan Duffy | Follow Me On Twitter @Rduffy26

It took 82 games, but the tables have finally set for the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the Boston Bruins taking on the Carolina Hurricanes for the third time in four years. The two teams previously played in 2019 in the Eastern Conference Final and the 2020 Bubble in the first round. Boston won both series against Carolina in what seemed to be easy fashion when they swept them in four games in 2019 and five games in 2020. This year has seemingly worked to the Hurricane’s benefit as the Bruins went 0-3 and were outscored outrageously 16-1 by Carolina in the regular season.

Carolina (54-20-8) finished as the first seed in the Metropolitan Division with 116 points and the third-best record in the NHL, whereas Boston (51-26-5) finished in the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. While the numbers in the Playoffs in previous years may be encouraging to many Bruins fans, they would be mistaken to let that influence how they think this series will go.

Uncertainty surrounding goaltending

Perhaps the most significant storyline for both teams is the uncertainty in the net. Boston has two goaltenders who have limited experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. Ullmark, who played for the Buffalo Sabres for the first six years of his career, has never played in an NHL playoff game. In contrast, rookie goaltender, Jeremy Swayman, had a single period of playoff experience against the New York Islanders last year.

While the lack of playoff history for the Bruins’ goaltenders may be a concern, their regular-season numbers should be encouraging. Ullmark and Swayman split the regular season starts, and they’ve been one of Boston’s unsung heroes this year. Ullmark (26-10-2) finished with a 2.45 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage, whereas Swayman had a 2.41 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. Ullmark will get the game one start in Carolina, but don’t be surprised if there’s a rotation between the goaltenders in these playoffs.

Since the puck drop of the 2021-22 season, Carolina’s backbone has been the play of Frederik Andersen (35-14-0). Fortunately for Boston, Andersen sustained a lower-body injury in mid-April against the Colorado Avalanche and won’t start for the Hurricanes in game one. The 32-year-old netminder was having a career season with Carolina as he was ranked second in goals-against-average (2.17 GAA) and tied for third in save percentage (.922 SV %).

While Andersen’s injury is a massive loss to Carolina, Antti Raanta and rookie Pyotr Kochetkov have filled the net well during Andersen’s absence. Raanta (15-5-4) had 2.45 goals-against-average and a .912 save percentage in his 28 games this season. Kochetkov is undefeated in his three starts this year with a 2.42 GAA, and a .902 save percentage. With Andersen out to start the series, Raanta probably will get the start considering his veteran status. Raanta has yet to start in a playoff game, but he appeared in five different playoff games when he was with the New York Rangers and Arizona Coyotes organizations. 

Offensive and defensive depth

Boston has received offensive scoring outside the top line, unlike previous years. While Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and the emergence of Jake DeBrusk, have continued to give the Bruins scoring on the first line, Boston’s second and third lines have provided some much-needed scoring punch this season. The Taylor Hall, Erik Haula, and David Pastrnak line had a combined 182 points in the regular season and have given Boston speed and skill on the top-six. The Bruins’ third line of Trent Frederic, Charlie Coyle, and Craig Smith scored a collective 98 points. While the third line may not score on a game-by-game basis, they are physical and pose a potential mismatch to the opposing team due to their checking ability. Boston’s top three lines will need to continue their strong play in the series against the Canes for the Bruins to have a chance in this series.

With Boston acquiring Hampus Lindholm at the trade deadline, it’s given the Bruins a new-look defense that improves their in-zone defense and transition game. Whether Bruins’ head coach Bruce Cassidy has Lindholm paired with Charlie McAvoy or Brandon Carlo, Boston should feel confident they can match Carolina’s forward group. Carolina is a hard forechecking and speedy team, so Boston’s defense will need to be sharp right off the bat come Monday night. After some uncertainty surrounding the bottom pairing, Boston’s Derek Forbort and Connor Clifton have significantly improved after shifting in and out of the lineup in the last 15 games. On the penalty kill, Forbort is tied for sixth in the NHL in average PK time on ice per game with 3:05. Despite the differing opinions of Forbort in Bruins fans, he’ll be integral to this team if they hope to go far in the playoffs.

No different from the Bruins, Carolina has gotten contributions up and down their lineup. The Canes leading scorers were young and upcoming superstars this year, Sabastian Aho (81 points in 79 games) and Andrei Svechnikov (69 points in 78 games). Aho, in particular, has shown he’s a game-breaker for Carolina as he’s become one of the NHL’s premier two-way forwards. What separates Carolina from other teams is their ability to contribute by the committee, as they had an impressive 14 different 25-plus point-scorers this season. The Canes are also one of the better faceoff teams with Vincent Trocheck (54.6 FOW %) and Jordan Staal (57.2 FOW %), which may become an issue for Boston outside of Bergeron.

In the offseason, Carolina lost Dougie Hamilton and acquired defenseman Tony DeAngelo in hopes of replacing the offensive defenseman, and oh boy, has he ever filled his shoes well. DeAngelo has fit perfectly on the top pairing and put up 51 points in 64 games for Carolina. His defensive partner, Jaccob Slavin, is perhaps Carolina’s most crucial player, given the ice-time he plays. Slavin is a versatile defenseman and is often relied on to log significant minutes in all situations. He played the second-most minutes shorthanded in the NHL (255 min) and averaged 23:32 in time on ice per game, but he’s fully capable of going beyond 30+ minutes per night. Brett Pesce is another defender for Carolina that’s an underrated player in the NHL. While not known for his offense, he collected 28 points in the regular season and played significant minutes shorthanded. Carolina led the NHL in the least amount of goals allowed this year with 200 goals against, which is a testament to how head coach Rod Brind’Amour has his team play team defense.

Does playoff experience or youth prevail?

The Bruins are the more experienced team in terms of playoff experience, as they’ve qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth straight season. Since the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Patrice Bergeron (65 GP), Brad Marchand (66 GP), and David Pastrnak (63 GP) have a communal 190 points and have helped the Bruins win six series since then. Pastrnak has 27 goals and 41 assists in the playoffs and averages 1.08 points per game. He is one of nine other NHL players scoring at an equal rate or above since 2017, and he has a chance to become the fifth active NHLer to put up 30 goals in the playoffs at 25 years or younger.

Carolina has reached the playoffs for the third straight season under Brind’Amour, but they’ve yet to eclipse a Stanley Cup Final despite expectations rising each season in Raleigh. Sebastian Aho leads the team in points through the last three playoffs, with 35 points in 34 games. One player that has struggled to stay healthy over that span is Svechnikov, who’s seemingly gotten injured each year in the playoffs. Svechnikov has 20 points in 26 playoff games since 2019, and Carolina hopes he can stay healthy as the physicality and pace heats up.

X-Factors for the Hurricanes

The health of Frederik Andersen is evidently the biggest x-factor for the Carolina Hurricanes. Part of the lack of success that Carolina has had in the last three Playoffs is due to goaltending. Before they acquired Andersen, Carolina had allowed 91 goals in 34 games played since 2019. They haven’t gotten the saves they’ve needed in critical times, and they’ve suffered in elimination games as a result. Staying along the lines of health, Svechnikov is Carolina’s best goal scorer and, when healthy, has put up points in the playoffs despite limited experience. Finally, Carolina’s penalty kill needs to continue its dominance. Carolina led the NHL this season in PK percentage with an 88% efficiency. Even if power plays are less common in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Boston has multiple game-breakers on the power play that have the potential to change the course of a game or even a series.

X-Factors for the Bruins

Like Carolina’s goaltending situation, Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman will be Boston’s most important players in the first round. The 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be the first time since 2004 that the Bruins will be without former starting and legendary goaltenders Tim Thomas or Tuukka Rask. With the Bruins’ goaltenders having minimal playoff background, they will need to step up their game with the stakes of every win and loss rising. The health of David Pastrnak is the next x-factor for Boston considering his injury late in the regular season. Without Pastrnak in the lineup this season, the Bruins have a 4-6 record, and they’ve scored 23 goals while allowing 32 goals against. Not only did their record and lack of scoring show how desperately Boston needs Pastrnak, but their power play struggled heavily without him. Late in the season, Boston went on an abysmal 0/39 power play stretch before, ironically, Pastrnak broke the streak with his 40th goal of the season against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday. After their goalless power play stretch, the Bruins dropped to 15th in power-play percentage in the NHL (21.9%). Boston’s power play has been such a weapon in previous playoffs, and they will need to be at their best when they get their opportunities against the Hurricanes.

Do the Bruins stand a chance?

YES. While experience isn’t everything, it can undoubtedly help the Bruins get past the Hurricanes in the first round. Even though Carolina has had their way with the Bruins this year, Frederik Andersen’s injury may be a liability if he remains out of the lineup for the foreseeable future. So long as depth scoring continues and the Bruins’ goaltenders remain composed, Boston can win a seven-game series against Carolina.