BOSTON -- Remember when the Bruins power play was in the middle of an 0-for-39 slump in April and then could barely execute a successful zone entry in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes?
Those struggles seem like a long time ago, especially after the Bruins completely dominated the special teams battle to win Game 3 and Game 4 at TD Garden this past weekend to even the series at two victories apiece.
There are a bunch of reasons why the Bruins are headed back to Raleigh with a chance to take a 3-2 series lead. After a slow start to the series, Boston's top players -- most notably Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak -- are firing on all cylinders offensively. Rookie goalie Jeremy Swayman has given the B's two excellent performances in net. The blue line, which was without its top two defensemen in Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm for Game 4 on Sunday afternoon, has held up better than expected.
But the biggest reason for the Bruins' remarkable turnaround has been their special teams play. This area proved to be the difference over the last two games.
The Hurricanes committed six penalties and gave up two power-play goals in Game 3. They vowed to stay out of the box and be more disciplined going forward.
Instead, they played with even less composure and lost their cool in Game 4. Carolina was penalized eight times Sunday and gave up two more power-play goals. Boston had nine power plays overall, including two separate 5-on-3 advantages for over a minute apiece. The B's capitalized on the second 5-on-3 to open the third period. Marchand fired a perfect shot past Hurricanes goalie Antti Raanta to give the Bruins their first lead at 3-2.
The Hurricanes had the No. 1 ranked penalty kill in the regular season with an 88 percent success rate, but it has allowed five goals in the last eight periods.
“We took too many (penalties). It felt like the whole game we were shorthanded," Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour said after his team's Game 4 defeat. "Those top guys, they’re as elite as they come. You just can’t give them those looks."
Boston's penalty kill also has shown tremendous improvement in the last two games.
This unit gave up two power-play goals in the Bruins' 5-2 loss in Game 2. But the PK was a perfect 10-for-10 in Games 3 and 4 combined. The Bruins penalty kill is now blocking shots, winning puck battles, breaking up passes, clogging shooting lanes and making it difficult for the 'Canes to enter the attacking zone.
The Bruins were shorthanded for 5:35 in Game 4 and gave up three shots on net and only one scoring chance. In Game 3, the Bruins allowed just three shots on net and scored a shorthanded goal in 10 minutes of penalty kill action. B's defenseman Derek Forbort blocked six (!) shots on the penalty kill by himself Friday night.
It's hard to rely on special teams to carry you through a series. Power plays are susceptible to cold steaks, which the Bruins experienced first hand last month.
But it wouldn't be surprising if the Bruins got plenty more opportunities to cash in on the power play. The Hurricanes took the seventh-most penalties in the league during the regular season with 331, and their penalty differential of minus-46 was the second-worst in the league. Carolina doesn't draw a ton of penalties and also commits them at a high rate.
If the Hurricanes stay out of the box, they'll have a very good chance to win this series, especially with two of the final three games being played in Raleigh. Carolina has been the better even-strength team, outscoring Boston 12-6 with a 79-75 edge in scoring chances during the 175:55 of even-strength ice time through four games.
But the Hurricanes have shown nothing to suggest they will play with more discipline the rest of the series. If the Bruins continue to win the special teams battle at this kind of rate, it won't be a matter of if, but when they eliminate the 'Canes from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.