Once the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals were cleared from the deck in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the focus turned to who might take the reins in the Eastern Conference.
The Boston Bruins figured they had the answer. They had the tightest, toughest team, likely the best goalie and the pent-up desire to make up for squandered chances and position themselves for their first serious Cup run since losing to the Chicago Blackhawks the finals in 2013.
To this point, it’s played out exactly as the Bruins had planned. While the Western Conference playoffs have been characterized by poor officiating, the Bruins have powered through without the need for luck.
The force with which they’ve played was illustrated with their blitzkrieg of the Carolina Hurricanes, the underdog’s go-to bunch this spring. The Bruins demolished them in four straight, ending with Thursday’s win in Raleigh.
Even without captain Zdeno Chara missing from their defense, the Bruins swaddled the Hurricanes and rocked them to sleep.
Boston allowed Carolina only 24 shots on goal Thursday, making life sweet for goalie Tuukka Rask, who has been enormous in the playoffs.
Hockey mavens will tell you goaltending makes all the difference at this time of year and Rask has been at the top of his game. His save percentage is .956 and with a chance to close out opponents in the first three rounds he has allowed only one goal on 96 shots.
So we ask you. Who is better than Rask? Nobody.
“I don’t have the words for it,” Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy told ESPN. “I sat on the bench tonight, I would see a Grade A [chance] and just shake my head of how easy he made it look, making some of those saves. He’s unbelievable. I’ve always had that belief in him and I know everyone else in our room has.”
When the Bruins won their last Stanley Cup in 2011 it was behind the great play of goalie Tim Thomas, so Bruins fans were preconditioned to expect greatness when Rask finally took over. Their faith in the guy had been tested the year before when he was held responsible for blowing a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round. And frankly, winning the Vezina Trophy in 2014 didn’t really move the needle as much as it should have.
Still, its hard to think where the Bruins would be this season without him. After Boston survived a Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy jumped to Rask’s defense.
“I think you have to, as a fan, acknowledge when a player plays well,” Cassidy said then. “I know in this town when you don’t, you hear about it — that’s fine too. But tonight he played well and hopefully the people get behind him.”
That said, Boston’s defense was splendid against Carolina. Up 2-0 heading into the third period Thursday, they held the Canes without a shot on goal for almost the first half of the third period. In the series, Carolina scored only one power play goal.
You’ll recall what Carolina’s captain, Justin Williams, said after losing Game 2. He said his team needed to “eat a poop sandwich and chew on it” to reconcile how poorly it had played. Williams underestimated that it wasn’t Carolina’s inadequacy as much as Boston’s superiority that led the Canes to that deli spread.
The Bruins have sensed the importance of this season from the start. Cassidy calibrated the mindset when he coined “unfinished business” as the team’s battle cry.
“Proud of the guys, especially with the way we played today,” Cassidy said after the series wrapped up. “They’ve earned the right to be there. We’ve earned the right to be where we are to go to the Stanley Cup final. We beat three good teams [Toronto, Columbus and Carolina]… our guys understand there are still four more steps to take.”
Boston’s accessorized its roster at the trade deadline by acquiring center Charlie Coyle and winger Marcus Johansson. They plugged Coyle in on their third line and dropped Johansson on their second line. And then it watched things coalesce, supporting its top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak on the rare occasions it wasn’t producing.
“I think we’ve played as a team the whole year, and I think we’ve shown that,” Bergeron told NHL.com. “Our depth has been winning games for us, and that was the perfect example in this series. Everyone chipping in on any given night, and it was a big difference, I thought.”
At the heart of the team is the nucleus of veterans who have been with the team for the entire decade, guys like Chara, Bergeron, Rask, Marchand and David Krejci. The Bruins have now won seven straight playoff games on this run.
“We basically kind of grew up together,” Bergeron told The Athletic. “We’ve been around so long, and it’s been a fun ride to be part of with these guys, the core group and leaders. We’ve been through a lot, and you realize how hard it is to get to this point, so you’ve got to be thankful for that.
“Over the last few years, we’ve built something special with the young guys. They are a big part of this group and this team. They want to get better. They are big-time players and they relish any challenge, so it’s been a fun ride.”