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The Carolina Hurricanes' Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta won the William Jennings Trophy this past regular season, the award given to the goaltending duo that allows the fewest goals in the NHL. Despite that honor, it is goaltending that is one of the major question marks as the Hurricanes enter their first-round series with the Boston Bruins.
The Hurricanes enter the series with home-ice advantage, and the oddsmakers have installed them as slight -120 favorites to advance to the second round. This is projected to be the second-closest series of the first round, with only the Rangers-Penguins series being tighter from a betting odds point of view. With these two teams so evenly matched, the health of Carolina's starting goaltender, Andersen, might end up being what decides this series.
Two elite teams by the metrics
The Carolina Hurricanes finished the season with a 54-20-8 record, and their 116 points ranked third in the league at the end of the season. Carolina ended up on top of the Metropolitan Division. The Bruins had the 10th-highest point total in the league, finishing with 107 points. After a mediocre start that saw the Bruins win just 14 of their first 26 games, Boston finished the year on a 37-16-3 tear.
If you look beyond the standings, these teams are even more impressive. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Boston finished the year with the best expected-goal rate in hockey at 57.7%. The Bruins were the best team in hockey during the regular season in terms of suppressing the quality and quantity of chances their opponents received. Boston had a 1.97 expected goals-against per hour rate at 5-on-5. They were the only team in the league to come in under two goals. While not as dominant offensively, Boston still ranked seventh in expected goals scored.
On the other side, the Hurricanes were no slouch themselves. They ranked fifth in expected-goal rate. Carolina was the second-best team in the league in terms of generating offense, with only the Florida Panthers creating more expected goals per hour at 5-on-5 than the Canes. Defensively, things weren't as dominant for Carolina as it ranked just 15th in expected-goals against. Despite that, they gave up the fewest goals in the league in this season which underscores just how good their goaltending was. More on that later, but you can now see why the injury status of Andersen looms large.
Breaking down the rosters
Entering this series, you could make the case the rosters are relatively even. Boston might have the better high-end talent, but Carolina has slightly more depth through its roster.
When it comes to the Bruins, we're used to talking about the "Perfection Line." The trio of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand has been one of the best lines in recent memory and could dominate the game at both sides of the ice. However, during this past season, the trio was split up. Boston has moved Pastrnak down to its second line to play with Taylor Hall, giving it two first-line level players on both of its top lines in order to try and spread out its offensive attack.
Carolina's top line featuring Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and rookie Seth Jarvis is very good in its own right, but there's no denying they are the lesser of the top units in this series. Boston also has the better second-line by virtue of Hall and Pastrnak playing in that role. Where the Hurricanes have an advantage is the depth. Nino Niederreiter and Jordan Staal anchor the third line for the Canes, a more formidable duo than the Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith pairing Boston ices. On the fourth line, Carolina has much more gamebreaking ability with former third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Martin Necas, a player who scored 41 points in 56 games last year.
On defense, I'd have no issue with calling it a wash. Charlie McAvoy is probably the best defenseman in this series, but Jaccob Slavin is no slouch himself and is still somehow underrated. Behind their number one defensemen, both teams have solid depth with no obvious anchors.
Where this series turns on its head is the goaltending. If Andersen was healthy, Carolina would have an obvious advantage that would certainly neutralize the minor (if any) advantage Boston has in the skaters. Andersen ranked second in the league this past season in goals saved above expectation (GSAx), behind only Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers. Andersen has been ruled out of Game 1, and Antti Raanta is expected to get the start on Monday night. Raanta is no slouch himself, and you can argue he's better than either of Boston's goalies. However, Raanta has obvious durability issues throughout his career, and he's actually coming off an injury at the end of the regular season. With Andersen, Carolina had an obvious and massive goaltending edge. With Raanta, Carolina's edge becomes much smaller and perhaps non-existent, and the question marks are obvious.
Boston will be going with Linus Ullmark in Game 1. Ullmark posted a -2.9 GSAx on the season according to Evolving-Hockey. Ullmark split time over most of the season with rookie Jeremy Swayman, who posted a -4.3 GSAx in the same amount of starts. If Ullmark struggles in this series, don't be surprised to see Swayman as both goaltenders played exactly 41 games each during the regular season. The Boston duo combined for -7.2 GSAx on the season, compared to Carolina's duo which posted a +37.0 mark, 28.5 of which came from Andersen.
What's the best bet?
The Carolina Hurricanes were the better team in the regular season and have earned home-ice advantage in this series. While I put very little emphasis into the regular season head-to-head matchups, it's worth noting that Carolina won all three games against Boston this past season and outscored them 16-1 in the process. Yes, Boston scored one combined goal in their three games against Carolina this season, and that was in a 7-1 loss.
It's hard to argue with the Hurricanes being favorites here. However, it's nearly impossible to bet them right now with the status of Andersen uncertain. With the way hockey coaches love keeping secrets from the media, there's literally zero chance we'll know anything about Andersen until the day he's ready to return. If you told me Andersen would only miss a game, I could be talked into Carolina here. However, as it currently stands, Carolina's biggest edge in this series has been neutralized.
These two teams have met twice in the playoffs in recent years. In 2019, the Bruins swept Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Blues. In the 2020 bubble, the Bruins took care of the Hurricanes in five games, though all those games were painstakingly close. Boston might be a little less dominant than they were a few years ago, and Carolina might be a bit better, but recent history shouldn't be ignored.
As it stands, this series is either no bet or a +100 shot on the Bruins. It should be incredible hockey but there's no obvious edge. If we're throwing darts and want an even better payout, I could be talked into Boston -1.5 games at +185. I can see Boston stealing a game on the road with Andersen out early in the series and then being motivated to wrap things up at home in Game 6.