Any lingering bitterness from the heavy hitting, injurious, strangely officiated, off-ice chirp fest that was the Sharks’ round one series against the Vegas Golden Knights has to have worn off by now, and been replaced by excitement and respect for the on- and off-ice leadership of the Avalanche. Captain Gabriel Landeskog’s frank assessment of San Jose’s successful coach’s challenge in Game 7, in which he himself was determined to be offside prior to a Colorado goal in what was eventually a one goal game was refreshing and professional. The talent of Nathan MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen up front, and the flashes of young brilliance from Cale Makar and Samuel Girard, among others, on the blue line will make the Avs appointment viewing next season, and they are only likely to improve with the fourth overall pick at this year’s NHL Entry Draft in Dallas.
Looking ahead, though, the St. Louis Blues await the Sharks in the Western Conference Final and, for the second time in four years, stand in between San Jose and a Stanley Cup Final berth. The Blues are a very different team than the one that the Sharks defeated in six games in 2016, but are every bit as formidable. While the Sharks do boast the better regular season record, and will again have home ice for the first two games of the series, the Blues’ record does little to illustrate how dangerous they are. At the start of the new year, St. Louis sat in last place in the NHL, and it took the best record from that point on to climb up the ranks into a tie for third place in the Central Division.
Both teams have had grueling series thus far: while the Sharks have played one more game, St. Louis’ deciding Game 7 of the second round against the Dallas Stars went into a second overtime period. An extra day off tomorrow will help the Sharks, but only a little, and they’ll get back onto the proverbial horse on Saturday afternoon.
Until then, the Eastern side of the bracket is wasting no time at all.
What’s on tap
The last time the Bruins finished a long series while their opponent-to-be sat on their laurels after a surprising sweep, it resulted in a sloppy Game 1. In case you forgot, that was exactly two weeks ago, when the Bruins topped the Columbus Blue Jackets in overtime and set the tone for a tightly played, stifling, goaltender oriented series. As these two teams settle into each other’s rhythms, though, the clash of styles should make for some interesting viewing. The Hurricanes dominated most advanced possession and shot attempt metrics over the course of the regular season, and have won six straight games coming into tonight, with their 6-0 stomping at the hands of the Washington Capitals way back in Game 5 of the first round standing as their last loss.
The Bruins will be without top rearguard Charlie McAvoy tonight, serving a one game suspension for a hit to the head of Columbus’ Josh Anderson. This could provide an opportunity for Carolina, as McAvoy’s 25:36 of ice time per game in round two, and his 57.39 percent on-ice shot attempt share led the black and yellow for those six games. While Boston definitely boasts the top of top tier talent remaining in the postseason, their top three of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak were all in the top ten in the league in points per game during the regular season, expect Carolina to put up a tough fight, especially early on, to set the Bruins on their heels early.
Warren Foegele: Foegele’s five goals and nine points so far in the playoffs belie his humble beginnings, a third round draft pick in 2014 who earned a spot on this year’s roster with 15 points in 77 games. His third line with Lucas Wallmark and Brock McGinn has made its presence known this postseason, though, with eight goals through 11 games so far. With Boston’s star power up top, look for Carolina to get production from their forward depth.
Tuukka Rask: Rask is pretty unquestionable the best goaltender left standing and, given his performance so far, he’s arguably the best in the postseason period. Rask’s .944 even strength save percentage and .938 in all situations is first among all starters who played two rounds, and his 8.13 goals saved above average is not only best among all playoff goalies by a mile (Benjamin “been jammin’” Bishop sits second at 6.18, but like six of those were during Game 7’s overtime), it would rank 16th among 93 goaltenders who played during the regular season. GSAA is not a rate stat, so its effect is stronger with more games played, which really showcases how dominant he’s been during this postseason. Currently, Rask is the Conn Smythe favorite to beat, but the Hurricanes have dismantled game breaking goaltenders before (see Lehner, Robin).
The special teams battle could be a deciding one in this series. The Bruins have scored on ten of their 35 power plays so far, good for a league best 28.6 percent conversion rate, and have killed 31 of their 37 shorthanded situations. Carolina’s 10.5 percent power play is going to have to improve if they want to at least break even with players in the sin bin and, if Dunkin’ Donuts has anything to say about it, the Bruins will be shorthanded a lot.