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NHL playoffs, Round 2: The top 5 pressure points to watch in the East

The Boston Bruins’ 2-1 Game 7 overtime win on Saturday night over Toronto was an electric way to cap off the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. But besides the dramatic, back-and-forth Boston-Toronto series, the East side of the first-round bracket featured three lopsided series won by heavy favorites.

The second round should offer more entertaining theater: The Bruins will take on the Panthers in a rematch of last year’s first round, while the Hurricanes and Rangers will duel on the Metropolitan side.

Here are five pressure points to track in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Can Jake Guentzel and an improved power play help Carolina’s offense get over the hump?

Carolina’s been a possession powerhouse, exceptionally well-coached and defensively stiff for apparently forever. Their struggle in past playoff runs has been a wanting offense, with the lack of an elite goal scorer and an underwhelming power-play sticking out as weaknesses.

Scoring has been a perennial playoff problem for the Hurricanes. Last year, the Hurricanes scored just 1.5 goals a game as they were swept by the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Final. In 2022, the Hurricanes were limited to two or fewer goals in six of their seven games during their second-round loss to the New York Rangers. In 2021, they mustered 1.8 goals per game during a five-game second-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But there’s hope this year could be different.

For one, Carolina’s power play has emerged as a legitimate weapon. It ranked second in the NHL during the regular season, compared to 20th in 2022-23, and clicked at 33 percent in the first round against the Islanders. Will this allow the Canes to close the gap against the Rangers’ commanding special teams? It needs to be a closer competition because the Rangers scored seven power-play goals compared to Carolina’s two the last time these teams met in the playoffs.

At five-on-five, Jake Guentzel’s trade deadline acquisition is an obvious difference maker. He was quiet in round one against the Islanders but was outstanding down the stretch for the Hurricanes (25 points in 17 games) and has 35 goals in 63 career playoff games. They’ve added Evgeny Kuznetsov further down the lineup as an experienced playoff performer too.

A healthy Andrei Svechnikov is the internal addition many people are overlooking. The 24-year-old top-six winger missed Carolina’s entire playoff run last year due to injury. He’ll be a key offensive cog on the club’s top line.

Filip Chytil hasn’t played since Nov. 2. (Eric Canha/USA TODAY Sports)

Will Filip Chytil be the Rangers’ X-factor?

The Rangers need Artemi Panarin playing at his regular season MVP caliber level. New York will be in good shape offensively if that line featuring Panarin, Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafrenière can lead the way at five-on-five, in addition to Mika Zibanejad’s line scoring at a steady clip.

Those are the obvious keys. Looking beyond that, Filip Chytil emerges as New York’s wild card.

Chytil hasn’t played since Nov. 2 because of concussion issues. He has, however, been a full-contact practice participant with the Rangers recently. The 24-year-old Czech center broke out as a bona fide top-six player last season with 22 goals and 45 points in 72 games. Those totals were especially impressive considering his limited power-play usage.

He looked electric at the start of this season centering Panarin and Lafrenière. Of course, expectations need to be tempered if he returns as he’ll have missed so much time and would likely slot in a third-line role rather than playing with Panarin because of how well Trocheck is performing. But if Chytil is healthy and even 70 percent of the player he was last season, the Rangers will get a massive secondary scoring boost.

Chytil drives play with his smooth skating, above-average frame and highly competitive style. He can be a lethal attacker off the rush. Chytil scored four goals in seven games on the third line when the Rangers played the Hurricanes in 2022. Will he return and play another big part in this rematch?

Can the Bruins continue their special teams dominance against a tougher Panthers opponent?

The Bruins are the only NHL team that advanced in the playoffs despite a negative five-on-five goal differential in round one (five-on-five goals were 11-10 in Toronto’s favor). They made it through because of their special teams, which were especially dominant early in the series. Boston’s power play clicked at 35.3 percent, scoring six times, and the penalty kill was masterful, limiting Toronto to just one goal on 21 opportunities.

Special teams have long been a strength for the Bruins. It’s an essential battle for them to win again, but the Panthers present a whole new challenge.

Toronto’s power play was hampered by the games William Nylander and Auston Matthews missed due to injury. The Leafs’ power play also seemed to shoot itself in the foot with self-inflicted execution mistakes, particularly on zone entries. So yes, while it’s true that the Panthers’ eighth-best power play in the NHL ranked just below the Leafs’ power play in the regular season, Florida will likely present a more dangerous man advantage unit than what the Bruins faced in round one.

Second, the Panthers’ penalty kill ranked sixth best in the NHL, compared to the Leafs’ 23rd-ranked unit. It won’t be as easy for Boston to convert on their power play opportunities either.

Let’s see if Boston’s excellent PK and power play can find another gear against a more challenging Panthers team.

Coyle and Zacha did an admirable job stepping into Patrice Bergeron and David Krecji’s massive shoes during the regular season. Both players had career-best offensive years, with Coyle hitting 25 goals and 60 points and Zacha producing 59 points in 78 games.

In the first round, they combined for zero goals. They mustered two assists each in the entire seven-game series. Coyle was one of only two Bruins forwards to go pointless at even strength. Both players were on the ice for more five-on-five goals against than for. Their struggles are partly why Boston scored just 1.76 goals per hour at five-on-five against the Leafs.

The Bruins won’t beat the Panthers if those two continue scuffing offensively; they need to channel their regular season form.

Will the Panthers get a healthy Sam Bennett?

Speaking of top-six centers, Sam Bennett’s availability and performance are worth monitoring. The 27-year-old hard-nosed pivot hasn’t played since getting struck in the hand by a shot in Game 2 against Tampa Bay.

Matthew Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart and Carter Verhaeghe get most of the spotlight in Florida, but Bennett’s impact is critical. Bennett scored 15 points in 20 games during last year’s playoff run. He can score around the net, but also has sneaky smooth hands and showcases his playmaking abilities on zone entries. And, of course, his impact goes far beyond the point totals.

Bennett is a physical wrecking ball and gets away with more damage during the postseason. He’s a fabric of the Panthers’ mean, aggressive, playoff-style identity. At his best, Bennett is a freakish combination of above-average size, speed, skill and physical destruction.

Paul Maurice has said it’s a “very real possibility” that Bennett will play in the second round. The big questions: At what point in the series will he be ready and when he does return, will Bennett immediately find his rambunctious, offensively productive game or will we see a muted, less effective version of him?

(Top photo of Jake Guentzel: Josh Lavallee / NHLI via Getty Images)