Carolina’s Gusts are Heading to Boston


Apr 30, 2009

Gurgle, splut-splut, pssssssssshhhh.

Ahh, the final throes of another pot of coffee being brewed. A sound that Bruins video coordinator Brant Berglund,
no doubt, heard a few times as Tuesday night’s nuttiness churned toward
Wednesday’s dawn. After six days of victory “vacation” awaiting the
identity of a second-round opponent (delaying Berglund’s scientifically
selected scouting video), the Bruins finally found out.

The Rangers.

Uhh, wait a sec. The Penguins.

No! Carolina!

Washington came out for Game 7 against the Rangers gripping sticks
so tightly that had they been made of good ol’ reliable wood, the ice
would have been awash in sawdust. The Caps gave up two breakaways —
breakaways — in the first 90 seconds and never achieved the
free-flowing offensive recklessness that had made them a strong
favorite in their series. But Sergei Fedorov once again revealed the chink in “King” Henrik Lundqvist’s
chain mail (really, New York media, give it a blasted rest with
anointing athletes — I’m still getting over your prophesied Hall of
Fame basketball career of turnover machine Felipe Lopez).
Following the now well-worn route to victory, Fedorov stuck a laser
between Lundqvist’s left ear and his trapper: glove-side high with five
minutes to go. 2-1, Caps. Rock the Red. Sean Avery now can turn his attention (what there is of it) to summer stock theatre roles for much-needed work on his acting.

With the Rangers gone and the top-ranked Bruins working their way up
the first-meets-worst ladder of possibilities, it looked like
fourth-seeded Pittsburgh in the second round (Berglund dumps about 150
gigabytes of memory and begins to work on the Penguins). After all,
third-seeded New Jersey was up a goal on sixth-seeded Carolina going
into the final two minutes, and the Devils had Martin Brodeur guarding the goal.

You may not have caught it, but Mike Milbury chided me for not going
along and rubber-stamping Brodeur as “the greatest goalie of all time”
this past winter. Yes, Brodeur is right there with the all-time greats
— but I don’t recall Ken Dryden allowing two through-the-goalie
crowd-silencers in the last 80 seconds of a seventh game to turn
advancement into elimination. At home! Yet that is what happened during
the sudden crumbling at The Rock.

So the Bruins get the Hurricanes. And you get “The Five Questions,” Round 2.

1. Does Boston’s regular-season dominance mean anything?
Yes, but only minimally. That was no “Brass Bonanza” the B’s heard when
they played Carolina this year (I promise, my only stinkin’ Whale
reference), it was a Frank Sinatra
soundtrack: “Summer Winds.” 4-2, 4-2, 5-1 and 5-1. Four decisive Boston
victories. The Hurricanes aren’t whistling the same tune now.

The last meeting — perhaps the most thorough of Boston’s four wins —
came on Feb. 17 down in Raleigh. The Bruins went two-for-three on the
power play, five-for-five on the penalty kill, and looked as if they
wouldn’t have Carolina on their minds until next October at least.
Little did they know that the Canes’ mighty comeback was about to begin.

Carolina had the perfect path to find its game: In the five days
that followed their 5-1 humbling at the RBC Center, the Hurricanes
played the three worst teams in the NHL — the cellar-dwelling and
eventual lottery-winning Islanders, the 29th-ranked Gong Show Lightning
and the 28th-ranked buried-beneath-the-Avalanche. The Canes won three
in a row. They simplified, they executed, they found their

They traded for old friend and power forward Erik Cole
at the deadline, giving themselves a second-line threat. And Cam Ward
went inverted, adopting now for two months the posture hockey fans most
love in a goalie: standing on his head.

Here’s what we can take out of the regular season:

• New Daddy Zdeno Chara stifled Eric Staal,
so Carolina will need secondary scoring from the likes of Cole (zero
goals in the playoffs since the 2002 run to the Cup Final) and
thrice-relocated B’s refugee Sergei Samsonov to compete. Jussi Jokinen
has been awesome (more about him later), but Carolina needs more than
just JJ (do you pronounce that “yay-yay”?) in terms of backup help.

• No team can match the Bruins’ 5-on-5. Carolina acquitted itself
reasonably well over the 82-game haul, ranking 19th in 5-on-5 goals for
and eighth in 5-on-5 goals against (the B’s were first in both). If the
Bruins can keep the games flowing at full strength (see previous result
vs. Montreal), they will have conditions that favor them.

Interestingly enough, Carolina tied Montreal for the most power-play
opportunities this past season (374, or 4.56 per game). Against New
Jersey, which has a don’t-take-penalties profile similar to Boston’s,
the Canes still got 4.14 power plays per playoff game. So they’re
probably going to get their chances with the man-advantage against the
Bruins, too.

In addition, the Canes usually come out ahead in the give-and-take
exchanges of manpower. They had the man-advantage 73 more times than
they were shorthanded during the regular season — the best net in the
league by 35 percent.

These factors could well mitigate the Bruins’ brilliant special
teams play that was important in the first round against the Canadiens.

• Carolina can kill you four-against-four. The Hurricanes tied
Pittsburgh as the NHL’s top team with 13 4-on-4 goals scored during the
regular season, and they were alone with the best 4-on-4 goal
differential in the league. I was little surprised that the broadcast
of Game 7 didn’t point this out when the Canes were down a goal midway
through the third period and fighting for their playoff lives with
their greatest strength — but couldn’t get it done. That 4-on-4 failure
made me think Carolina was all but doomed.

• This should be a relatively fight-free series. The Bruins, of
course, don’t mind mixing it up. But only Detroit (with 12) had fewer
major penalties than Carolina’s 26 during the regular season.

Do the game results matter? We can put it (and Carolina’s relative
temperature) as simply as this: The high in Boston the last day these
two teams met was 37 degrees. It was 93 here on Tuesday, folks. It’s a
different season. Here comes the heat.

2. What shows up when Carolina is playing well?
Close support and all sizes of offensive triangles. Under ousted coach Peter Laviolette,
Carolina attacked in all situations, all the time. It was Laviolette’s
version of structured fire-wagon hockey — and it was really exciting to
watch. That is, until the wheels fell off the wagon. Out went
Laviolette (I still think he got the shaft before it should have been
panic time), in came Paul Maurice, and nothing happened. Until the
Hurricanes got their wind back in late February.

Carolina went 17-3-2 after that setback against Boston by playing
beautiful hockey. As my broadcast partner Andy Brickley has pointed out
many times, the Bruins layer their defense in such a way that there are
almost always too many players between the puck carrier and the goal
for an attack to succeed.

In a similar philosophy, Carolina launches its counterattacks by
having supporting defenders immediately available for short, accurate
passes to exit the defensive zone. In mid-March, we often chuckled
while watching the Canes because it truly seemed as if they had about
seven skaters on the ice at a time. A wing or a defenseman would make a
stop along the boards, and there would be a teammate no more than 12
feet to his side. Quick dish onto the tape, two touches and zzzzip, a
longer exit pass for transition through center, acceleration into the
attacking end, and either a chance off the rush or a strong cycle in
the corner. It was, and still is, beautiful to watch, and it can be
murder to stop.

Augmenting this close support is Carolina’s solid offensive concept.
The Hurricanes seldom attack “flat,” or in a straight horizontal line.
They come at their opponents in flying triangles, creating varying
angles and seemingly limitless options to find and/or create weak
points in a defense. When they pry open a loose spot, options appear
quickly for one-timers, seam-finding feeds for corner-picking wrist
shots and sizzling passing combinations for cross-crease slams to the
back of the net.

These strengths point toward some brutal battles along the walls, as
loose pucks will be at a premium and possession will have a value of
its own. Against a team like the Hurricanes that counters effectively
and puts opponents in compromising positions to get on the power play,
the best defense is a good offense. Puck possession in the attacking
zone and preventing Carolina from making clean breakouts will be among
Boston’s key objectives toward winning the series.

3. Whose defensive corps is stronger?
As Andrew Ference
ramps up his strength and stamina in preparation for a second-round
return to action, the Bruins would seem to have a substantial edge in
this category. That’s because Boston combines a well-earned reputation
for defensive nastiness with a versatility that New Jersey just didn’t
have on the blue line. With Ference and long-range missile launcher Dennis Wideman
stretching the opposing D with hundred-foot passes from the defensive
face-off circles, the Bruins can play to their speed more effectively
than Carolina can, or than New Jersey could.

Joe Corvo loves to rush the puck and can take on
the characteristics of a wild mustang coming out of his defensive zone.
Corvo got caught forward a bunch of times during the regular-season
series, and the Bruins were able to launch transition attacks off some
of his overambitious adventures. Corvo has played a much safer and
better-calculated game as the stakes have gotten higher.

Canes’ defenseman Anton Babchuk became a mad bomber
down the stretch with seven goals and six assists for 13 points in an
11-game stretch. Babchuk’s blasts, when not rattling the roof of the
goal, often have that coaches-love-‘em look to them, low and to the
opposite side of the crease, producing rebounds and easy second chances
for hungry forwards.

Ultimately, the comparison of D-corps strength comes down to this:
The Hurricanes have no one who can play at Zdeno Chara’s level. Chara
is the best defenseman in the NHL, nipping rushes in the bud with
blue-line poke-checks and rubbing out cycles with huge hits in the
corners. No one is better at combining intimidation, the ability to
stop the flow of attacks, calm control of the puck under duress, and
sure high-percentage passes to turn the tables of a moment or a game.
Carolina will target Chara. The Hurricanes will bang him, yap at him,
run at him with speed, and challenge him in every way they can. If they
can damage Chara’s effectiveness, they can win the series.

4. Who are the Carolina’s X factors?
There are plenty of stars in this matchup: Marc Savard, David Krejci, Phil Kessel, Michael Ryder, Patrice Bergeron, Chara, Wideman, Milan Lucic among them for Boston; Eric Staal, Rod Brind’Amour, Erik Cole for Carolina; both goaltenders, Vezina Trophy nominee Tim Thomas and 2006 Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward (who, by the way, never has lost a playoff series).

Then what?

Although he is a first-line wing who is tied with linemates Eric Staal and Chad LaRose for the team playoff scoring lead, Ray Whitney
still flies under a lot of radar sweeps. He shouldn’t. His hockey IQ is
outstanding — he does everything with a purpose. The Hurricanes almost
always are better off after the puck leaves his stick than they were
before he received it. You’ve seen David Krejci do his legerdemain as a
right-hand shot low in the left-side attacking zone face-off circle? In
Carolina, they also have a guy who does that. They call Whitney “The
Wizard.” He creates too many options for any defense to be comfortable.
He is quick, he uses space inventively, he can thread a needle with a
pass or pick a corner with a shot. He is, in short, a problem for any
opponent. The less he has the puck, the less chance the Hurricanes have
to win.

About Staal, you’ll hear plenty. Big, clutch (the series-winner through Brodeur), nasty enough, a natural leader.

On the other side of Staal Mountain from Whitney, you’ll find
LaRose. A Michiganer, LaRose is a grinder and a role player who fits in
wherever he is assigned. When Maurice became coach, he jacked LaRose’s
minutes up by about 40 percent and the guy responded. Not that Staal
and Whitney don’t do dirty work, but LaRose lives for it — and doing
the grinding and puck-winning allows his linemates to excel at what
they are paid to do: win games.

Between the first and fourth lines, Carolina needs more production. Tuomo Ruutu just about got his head flattened by Patrik Elias in the final minutes Tuesday, Matt Cullen
has been OK but not too scary, Erik Cole brings his charge-to-the-net
threat yet hasn’t lit the lamp, Rod Brind’Amour has struggled in the
playoffs on face-offs (where he is usually among the very best), and
Sergei Samsonov has one point.

And then there’s Jussi Jokinen. All he does is score dramatic goals.
When the first body blow knocked the wind out of New Jersey, tying Game
7, Jokinen had the expression on his face that Cowboys fans used to see
on Tony Dorsett after the matter-of-fact flip of the
football to the back judge in the end zone. It was as if to say, “Yeah.
I just scored a monster goal. I’m a professional hockey player, and
that’s what they pay me to do. I have done this before, and I expect to
do it again. Now let’s go to center ice and drop the puck, huh?”

It was Jokinen who scored that game-tying goal Tuesday night. It was
Jokinen who scored the winner with two-tenths of a second left in Game
4, sending Brodeur into a stick-flinging frenzy. When the clock ticks
down and the Hurricanes are desperate, Jokinen wields the golden stick.
Or the magic wand. Take your pick, he’s on a scary roll right now.

Which begs the final question:

5. Are the Hurricanes this year’s Destiny’s Darlings?
As our production crew friends helped us pack up the booth after that
one-sided 5-1 Boston win on Feb. 17, they said, “Have a good summer,
and good luck in the playoffs. (Sadly) we aren’t getting there. See you
next season.”

Well, we’ll see them again a lot sooner than that.

Carolina has come from nowhere to darned-near nabbing home ice in the opening round of the playoffs.

No doubt, New Jersey would love to reverse a bit of history and lose
to the Canes in the final game of the regular season instead of beating
Carolina. Had that happened, the Hurricanes would have claimed fourth
place in the East, and Jersey might not be making summer plans right

Carolina has made everything go its way since taking that beating at
the hands of the Bruins during President’s Day vacation week. The Canes
suddenly “got it” while playing three doormats. They bought into Paul Maurice’s
system. They acquired Cole. They got stellar stops from Ward. And they
just bounced out the New Jersey Devils while beating the current
fashionable pick for “the greatest goalie of all time” twice in the
last two minutes of games and once in overtime.

The Hurricanes weren’t supposed to make the playoffs, and they did.
They weren’t supposed to beat New Jersey, and they did. They aren’t
supposed to beat the Bruins.

Depth favors Boston. Secondary scoring may well decide this series.
In seven playoff games, Carolina has 14 players with points. In just
four playoff games, Boston has 17 skaters with points (and Tim Thomas
with an assist).

Experience? The Hurricanes have quite a few holdovers and returnees from their Cup run in 2006. They also had Mark Recchi and Aaron Ward then. Recchi and Ward play for the Bruins now.

Every team that reaches the second round feels it can win the whole
thing, and the moment of breaking that inspired belief in an opponent
is what brings astonishment to everyone lucky enough to witness it.

It will take all of Boston’s depth and derring-do to quiet the
Canes. If the Bruins can muster their best effort of this wondrous
season, the video will be unbelievable, the memories indelible.

We’ve waited long enough.

Hit play.

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