The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs has been home to a number of familiar matchups from the past thus far. The same cannot be said for the upcoming second-round series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes. Sunday night’s Game 1 from Raleigh, NC will be the first-ever postseason affair that sees the two Central Division foes face off against one another.
The Hurricanes (36-12-8) are coming off a grueling six-game battle against the fourth-seeded Nashville Predators. Each of the final four games of the series needed overtime. It was a set of games that draws comparisons to the season series the team played against the Lightning (36-17-3).
Tampa Bay and Carolina played eight times during the condensed 2020-2021 campaign; the Hurricanes won four in regulation.
You can find other series previews and season recaps here.
Ohio-born goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic is one of the great stories to come out of the Hurricanes’ season. In a tight Central Division, Carolina found themselves as the top seed due in large part to his play.
The 25-year-old netminder appeared in 23 games during the regular season, solidifying himself down the stretch as the team’s starter. In addition to his rapid emergence, the goaltender can now pronounce himself as a playoff-winner. His .922 save percentage during the team’s series win over the Predators only confirms the prior beliefs that Nedeljkovic is the netminder to lead the current edition of the Canes.
Despite all the positives in the Hurricanes’ crease, their second-round opponent owns a bona fide Vezina Trophy-caliber netminder. Andrei Vasilevskiy has won more accolades than most of his counterparts in the sport at just 26 years of age. As a result, the Lightning have the luxury of always being in a game, despite how poorly the group as a whole may be playing on a given night.
The last time Vasilevskiy embarked on a playoff run, the Lightning captured the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2004. Barring an unprecedented meltdown by the netminder, the advantage in the crease will continue to go to Tampa Bay.
Carolina’s new-era success is built from the back end. The team will find encouraging results against anyone when executing to their strengths, even if it is against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
A blue line core consisting of Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce is strong enough to compete not only in regular season play, but also in a playoff atmosphere. The Hurricanes’ recent postseason results speak for themselves. Despite failing to reach the Stanley Cup Finals during that span, Carolina’s build towards sustained success is paying dividends. The upcoming playoff matchup against the Lightning is bound to be head coach Rod Brind’Amour’s greatest challenge in his tenure behind the bench.
The Lightning core is deep upfront and on the back end. Led by yearly Norris-candidate Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay is capable of shutting down the opposition’s top-line on any given night. That said, the Hurricanes’ success is defined by their blue line, and that should not change in a playoff series, despite the opponent.
Any talks of special teams in the upcoming second-round series starts and ends with Tampa Bay’s potent power play. The key for any opponent is to not take penalties; when it comes to playing the Lightning, that train of thought is only amplified.
Tampa Bay’s offense can hurt its opposition in a variety of ways, especially with its power play. Quarterbacked by Hedman, the five-man unit excels at zone-entries and puck possession. Despite Carolina’s more than impressive defensive core, there’s only so much the best penalty killers in the world can do against a force like the Lightning’s power play.
The return of forward Nikita Kucherov to the Tampa Bay lineup has added to an already stellar offense. Kucherov, along with Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point are game-breakers, and carry the intangible “clutch factor”.
It’s a trait that the analytics community are bound to roll their eyes at. Point has proven several times over the last two playoff runs that he’s capable of making an impact in the moments which matter most. Case in point (no pun intended), game one of the first round against the Florida Panthers. Two late third-period goals later, the Lightning had stolen the affair on the road.
The Hurricanes are not one of the lower scoring teams in the NHL, as evident with the final 2020-2021 goals-for statistics. However, when matched up against a team with a potent power play and Stanley Cup-proven game-breakers, Carolina appears to be outmatched at face value. With that said, the Winnipeg Jets proved in the first-round that running into top-ranked scoring clubs isn’t the worst proposition to face.
The aforementioned Kucherov and Point are the obvious game-breakers on Tampa’s end, but Sebastian Aho’s emergence into one of the game’s top offensive players can’t be ignored either for Carolina.
Aho produced at better than a point-per-game rate during the 2020-2021 regular season, while allocating his points nicely both on five-on-five play and with the man-advantage. The winger is dynamic and acts as Carolina’s top-scoring option entering the series. Especially when considering the fact that Aho scored seven points in six games against the Predators in round one, the stage is set for the Finnish forward to stand toe-to-toe with the Lightning’s elite talents for an entire series.
Brind’Amour could have already made the claim before coaching the Hurricanes that he’s always been the face of the franchise. After all, he is the only captain in Carolina history to hoist the Cup (2006). Now that the former Canes forward is behind the bench, his association with the franchise has gone to a level that’s beyond lacing up the skates. His team has now advanced past the first round for the third consecutive season, and the progression of his young forwards has improved yearly.
It would be a mistake, however, to ignore the fact that Tampa Bay’s bench-boss Jon Cooper has reached his pinnacle, after years of playoff disappointments. It’s a constant across every sport: Once you get over “the hump”, success is found much easier. The same applies to Cooper.
Despite playing as the No. 1 seed, the Hurricanes still feel like the underdogs. It’s a label that North Carolina’s club probably doesn’t mind. But it speaks more to the Lightning’s proficiency and experience in the postseason, as it does to Carolina’s inability to match up against them.
The Hurricanes have found success against the Lightning of late, but after finally reaching the top of the hockey mountain in 2020, this is still Tampa Bay’s series to lose.
Series Prediction: Tampa Bay 4-3
Follow Logan Lockhart on Twitter @lgllockhart
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