From one Cinderella to the next, the Boston Bruins find themselves going up against another Wild Card team in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. This time, it’s in the form of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Carolina was the top Wild Card team in the East. They are the No. 7 seed.
Boston is essentially the No. 2 seed in the East, however, because of the newer two-division format, the Bruins didn’t win the Atlantic Division — Tampa Bay did — and so the Metropolitan Division winning Washington Capitals took on the No. 7 seed Hurricanes in the first round.
Carolina won that series in seven games, upsetting the defending Stanley Cup champions. Then, the Hurricanes swept the New York Islanders in the second round.
And here we are. The Bruins host Carolina in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference Final this weekend at the TD Garden, after defeating the No. 8 seed Columbus Blue Jackets in six games. Columbus’ glass slipper fell off after upsetting the No. 1 seed Lightning in the first round.
So for the second straight series, the Bruins are left to deal with another Wild Card team playing with house money. Nobody thought the Hurricanes would be in the East Final. And if you told everyone in Boston before the playoffs that the Bruins’ road to the Stanley Cup Final had to go through Columbus and Carolina, there would’ve been Duckboats lined up on Causeway Street last month.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Bruins — who are currently the favorite to win the Cup at +175 — have to take advantage of avoiding Tampa Bay and Washington, the two division winners in the East.
They’ll do that with continued production from their top forwards, who finally stepped up towards the end of the Columbus series. And they’ll do it with Tuukka Rask continuing to be the definition of a Cup-contending goaltender.
For all the criticism that Rask has faced over the years, he’s never had a greater opportunity than this to shut everyone up for good. When Rask’s Bruins went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013 and lost to Chicago in six games, the Blackhawks were the best team in the NHL that season and were the favorite to win it all. Had the Bruins somehow escaped with the Cup, it would’ve been an upset.
Now, the shoe is on the other foot. Not only have the East’s top teams been eliminated, but the top seeds in the West are also all done. And given Rask’s tremendous .938 save percentage and 2.02 goals-against average through 13 games, it almost feels as if it’s Rask’s Stanley Cup to lose.
On the other end, in this Eastern Conference Final, the Hurricanes are dealing with a goaltender injury to their No. 1, Petr Mrazek, who left Game 2 of the second round with a lower-body injury and then missed Games 3 and 4.
Carolina was still able to get the job done with backup Curtis McElhinney, who made his first career playoff start in Game 3, becoming the oldest goalie in NHL history to make his first playoff start.
Reports say that Mrazek should be back and ready to go for Game 1 of the East Final, but either way, Rask will be expected to continue where he left off, with his 39-save, 3-0 shutout over the Blue Jackets in Game 6 of the second round in Columbus.
Right now, Rask’s critics are silent. And for good reason. But if he can’t finish slaying the remaining underdogs, those same critics will be back and as loud and obnoxious as ever before.
Listen to “The Danny Picard Show” on PodcastOne, iTunes, and Spotify. Follow him on Twitter @DannyPicard. Subscribe to YouTube.com/DannyPicard.