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Column: Hurricanes look to move on to 2nd round

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Hurricanes Bruins Hockey

Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Antti Raanta blocks a shot during the third period in Game 6 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins on Thursday in Boston.

For years, the Carolina Hurricanes have lacked goaltending consistency. “The (goaltending) position has been a revolving door of short-term solutions with varying degrees of success,” as Adam Gretz of NBC Sports described it last summer.

Though the Hurricanes did well with a rotating cast of three goaltenders last year (Alex Nedeljkovic, Petr Mrazek and James Reimer), a change was needed. So Carolina signed free agent goaltenders Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta in the offseason.

Making the acquisitions paid off. Andersen was second in goals against this season and third in save percentage, bringing stability to the goaltending position that was sorely needed. Furthermore, Raanta has been a capable backup. After making it to the playoffs for three straight years but failing to progress to the Stanley Cup Finals, it seemed as though the Hurricanes might finally have what they need to get over the hump.

And then the injury bug bit. While making a routine save during a mid-April game in Denver, Andersen went down with a lower body injury. He has yet to return to the ice. Can the Hurricanes overcome the absence of their No. 1 goalie as they seek to move on from the first round of the playoffs?

This season, the Hurricanes finished first in the Metropolitan division and recorded the most wins (54) in franchise history, and the team does not have an obvious weakness. Carolina excels, in particular, on defense, with the fewest goals allowed this past season and the best penalty kill (88 percent) in the league.

The offense is also stellar, with All-Star Sebastian Aho and emerging star Andrei Svechnikov leading the way in goals. Carolina’s power play was not among the best in the league this year, but neither was it among the worst. In 5-on-5 play, the Hurricanes had the highest shooting percentage in the NHL.

Despite the absence of Andersen, the Hurricanes had a promising start to the postseason, dominating the Boston Bruins in the first two games of their best-of-seven first-round series. Through Game 2, it appeared that Carolina would have little trouble disposing of the Bruins. In five games up until that point (three regular season games and two playoff games), the Hurricanes outscored the Bruins 26-4. Boston failed to gain a lead at any point over the five-game span.

But a series is not over, as the saying goes, until the home team loses a game. The Bruins took Games 3 and 4 in Boston to tie the series, leading to a pivotal Game 5 back in Raleigh. The Hurricanes reasserted their dominance in Game 5 before losing again to the Bruins in Boston in Game 6. The Hurricanes and Bruins face off in Game 7 today with a trip to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs on the line.

The Bruins have been a thorn in the Hurricanes’ side in recent years. The two have faced one another in the playoffs in three of the past four years. Boston knocked Carolina out of the playoffs in the two previous matchups.

Familiarity has bred contempt. It has been a chippy series. The Hurricanes being knocked out of the playoffs for a third time in four years by the Bruins would be demoralizing (particularly given that Carolina entered the playoffs as a No. 1 seed this year).

The home team has won every game so far this series. The trend is perhaps likely to continue. But Andersen remains out due to injury, so the Hurricanes will have to continue to rely on backup goaltending.

And Boston has returned to full strength. Bruins defenseman Hampus Lindholm went out due to injury in Game 2 of the series. His defensive partner Charlie McAvoy missed Game 4 due to COVID-19 protocols. The Bruins persevered despite losing their best defensive pairing. With both back in the lineup, the Hurricanes face their toughest test of the series in a pressure-filled Game 7. After Carolina’s record-breaking season, it would be hard to view a first-round exit from the playoffs as anything other than a disappointment.

The Hurricanes were 29-8-4 at home during the regular season. They are 4-0 at home against Boston this year (one regular season win and three playoff wins). Carolina has outscored the Bruins 15-3 in the three games in Raleigh this series. One more win at home would get the Hurricanes past their recent postseason nemesis.

PNC Arena will be raucous today. Andersen is out but the Caniacs are all in. A series win over Boston would give Carolina the confidence needed to make a run in this year’s playoffs. Let’s hope that today will mark the beginning of a postseason journey that has only just begun.

Dr. David Dreyer is a political science professor (and avid sports fan) at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

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