RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The Hurricanes, by virtue of eliminating Nashville with an overtime win in Game 6, will meet defending champion Tampa Bay in the second round of the NHL playoffs.
If the series against the Predators yielded any lessons, it’s that the eight games these teams played against one another in the regular season might not mean all that much. Carolina beat Nashville the first six times they met. The ‘Canes dominated special teams. On paper, they should have handled the Predators with relative ease.
Instead, Nashville outplayed the ‘Canes for a significant chunk of the series. It took Martin Necas’ heroics to send Game 5 to overtime, setting the table for Jordan Staal’s winner. Then the Predators dominated the first 30 minutes of Game 6, but were unable to protect a two-goal lead as Sebastian Aho’s tip-in meant the ‘Canes were moving on.
What lessons were learned from the Carolina-Nashville series?
Did the tight-checking nature of playoff hockey stymie Carolina’s high-skill offensive players? Aho had five goals in the six-game series, but many of the other go-to scorers were kept in check by the Predators.
Teuvo Teravainen (1 goal, 1 assist), Nino Niederreiter (1 goal, 0 assists), Andrei Svechnikov (1 goal, 2 assists), and Vincent Trocheck (2 goals, 1 assist) didn’t contribute much relative to their regular-season production. Dougie Hamilton wasn’t very effective through the first five games, either, but crucial to the comeback in Game 6.
Special teams didn’t shape up to be as much of an advantage for the ‘Canes as expected. They went into the series ranked in the top three in both the power play and penalty kill in the regular season. Meanwhile, Nashville ranked worst among teams to make the playoffs in both metrics.
Carolina’s power play dipped a bit as it converted on 4-of-20 man advantages in the series. That’s down from the 25.6 percent success rate that was second only to Edmonton over 56 games. The penalty kill, on the other hand, was 23-of-26, which is good for third in the playoffs. That said, those 26 times shorthanded are most in the playoffs.
The major takeaway is that while Carolina’s penalty kill was superb, cutting back on the penalties will be necessary. They can’t be giving Tampa Bay’s man advantage so many chances to go to work.
What can we learn from the eight regular-season games between Carolina and Tampa Bay?
The short answer: Not a lot.
This Lightning team isn’t the same team the ‘Canes split their eight games with in the regular season. It comes down to Nikita Kucherov, who returned from a season-long injury at the beginning of the postseason.
Tampa Bay had a solid power play in the regular season. It clicked on at a 22.3 percent clip, which was good for ninth in the NHL. Kucherov’s comeback bolstered that in a noticeable way. He marked his return with a pair of power-play goals in the second period of Game 1 against the Panthers.
The Lightning were 3-for-4 on the man advantage in that first game. That wasn’t exactly sustainable, but they still managed to convert on 5-of-16 of their power plays in the other five games. Tampa leads all playoff teams with eight power-play goals — twice as many as Carolina tallied in the same number of first-round games.
In the regular season, five of the eight meetings between the ‘Canes and Bolts were decided by two goals or fewer. Two of those games required overtime. Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic was 2-1 with a shutout against Tampa Bay.
Who has the edge?
There is something to be said about Tampa Bay having been to the top of the mountain just last year. The Lightning know adversity well from years of coming up short before winning the Stanley Cup in 2020. This year, they had to go all season without their top scorer, but were still good enough to finish third in the Central Division.
The ‘Canes know adversity, too — especially after how the last two games against Nashville went. They had to rally in the third periods each time and won both games. In the series, Carolina outscored the Predators 9-2 in the third periods of those six games.
But that isn’t a position the ‘Canes will want to find themselves in. Before Game 3 vs. Florida, the Lightning had won 41 games in a row when taking a lead the third period. Scoring first and playing with the lead will be important for Carolina.
Even with Tampa Bay boasting the likes of Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos, the ‘Canes are capable of matching their skill.
In goal, Bolts netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy is the best in the league. He had a .929 save percentage and 2.64 goals-against average in the Panthers series. Nedeljkovic’s GAA is almost a half-goal better, but there’s no denying Vasilevskiy’s pedigree.
Defense may be where Carolina owns a distinct advantage. Bolts blueliner Victor Hedman is arguably the best in the NHL at his position and Tampa Bay has other very good defenders. Still, Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce could very well be the best three-deep defense in all of hockey.
Beyond that, Jordan Staal — who is enjoying his best offensive season in a ‘Canes uniform — is one of the NHL’s premier two-way centers. He’s winning more than 60 percent of faceoffs in the playoffs and had 18 hits in six games. In fact, he ranks first among skaters in the postseason in faceoff wins. Aho and Trocheck rank 13th and 16th, respectively, while Point is the only Bolts skater represented in the top 25.
Expect to see a lot of Staal, Warren Foegele, and Jesper Fast against the Lightning’s top line.
Who moves on to the third round?
There will be fine margins in this series. The ‘Canes won all three of their home games thus far, so having home-ice advantage tips the scales in favor of Carolina.
Given the way the Lightning like to play, the ‘Canes should be better able to play their style than they were against Nashville.
And if nothing else, Carolina has shown resilience. They’ll be able to take whatever Tampa Bay has to offer in stride.
The series begins Sunday at 5 p.m. in Raleigh.
Prediction: Carolina in 7