On Monday, the Carolina Hurricanes officially punched their ticket to the 2021 NHL Playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers followed suit later in the week. With the Chicago Blackhawks hanging by a thread, the final playoff entry from the division figures to be either the Dallas Stars or Nashville Predators. Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a quick look at all five possible divisional playoff opponents.
Tampa Bay Lightning
I wrote about the Lightning in some detail already after the recent two-game series. If you missed it, you can find that article HERE. For me, what makes the Lightning daunting as an opponent is their top-end talent. Especially in the playoffs, whichever teams’ best players are better usually win the playoff series. Trying to better the Lightning’s best will be challenging especially if Nikita Kucherov can get up to speed quickly. The Lightning are also a team that was seemingly good enough but unable to win the Cup for a couple years, but found the right mix of high-end talent and a balance of more physical players who made the team more difficult to play against while also contributing on the score sheet.
The challenge: Winning best against best versus a team that has a high number of top of the NHL type players.
The possible advantage: Stylistically, I think the Lightning are a comfortable match up for the Canes. No doubt things would be physical in the playoffs, but both teams are okay playing a fast-paced game.
When Aaron Ekblad went down with an injury, my expectation was that the Panthers would fade a bit. My reasoning was that they were a team that was maybe a little light on higher-end defenders anyway and would not be able to defend well enough without Ekblad eating up a bunch of the tougher minutes. But to Florida’s credit, the team did not seem to miss a beat. When the Panthers are clicking, they are successful in much the same way that the Hurricanes are attacking even the smallest of turnovers with speed at transition points. The result can be quick goals in bunches for teams that do not manage the puck against them. The Hurricanes 6-0-2 mark against the Panthers during the regular season rightly suggests that the Hurricanes had the upper hand, but it was by a modest margin. With two of the Hurricanes wins also coming in extra hockey, four of the eight games were decided in overtime. I think that the biggest challenges versus the Panthers are twofold. First, the Panthers are a dangerous team if the Canes are a bit sloppy and turn over the puck. The other interesting wild card is that they could go the route of opening things up and aiming for something closer to shinny. That is how they came back to win the last game, and it is also something that the Hurricanes struggled with even against lesser teams in the Blackhawks and the Red Wings. It will be interesting to see if Quenneville takes the risk and tries to open the game up in the playoffs after finally netting some success with wide open play in the last game. The other wild card could be in net. Sergey Bobrovsky has fared somewhat better in 2020-21. His history in the playoffs is ‘meh’, but he has a high ceiling if he happens to find a higher gear in the post-season.
The challenge: The Panthers are incredibly dangerous if the Hurricanes do not manage the puck well.
The possible advantage: The Hurricanes are better on the blue line which potentially gives them an advantage in terms of scoring chances which is a great place to start.
Despite the rousing 5-1 win to close out the regular season and general success with a 6-1-1 record, I do not really care for the possibility of seeing the Stars in the playoffs. When playing well, the Stars can be a bit old school defensively aggressively clearing the front of the net for goalie site lines and forcing play to the outside and playing much more with two defensemen behind the play. The net result is to minimize high quality chances against in transition and also make it easy to fall into the trap of piling up too many low-quality shots in the offensive zone. And when the Stars get a lead, there is a multiplier effect. Especially if the Stars score first, the potential result can be a lot of frustration offensively. And despite my description that portrays them as a defense-first type of team, the team will have a decent amount of higher-end offense in the lineup when Seguin returns and considering their skating defensemen. Throw in the run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals that shows they know what it takes, and the match up is far from an easy one against a #4 seed.
The challenge: The potential for Dallas to be incredibly stingy defensively especially with a lead forcing the Hurricanes skill into the background and making the series more about scratching and clawing for a couple ugly goals.
The possible advantage: Despite generally being pretty structured defensively, the Stars still had stretches where they struggled at transition points with the Hurricanes speed and ability to capitalize on even the smallest of puck management errors.
On paper, the Predators look like the easiest match up. The Hurricanes are a perfect 6-0 against Nashville so far with five of those wins by two goals or more. The gap is not massive, but I do think the regular season series so far does show the Hurricanes to be the better team. The fact that the teams meet twice more immediately before the start of the playoffs could be an interesting wild card. After six straight losses will the Predators’ brain trust try to rock the boat by making significant changes to style of play or tactics? If they do and it works, there could be weird momentum heading into the playoff series. But based on the games so far, the Predators seemed to struggle matching the Hurricanes pace and in generating enough offensively at times.
The challenge: The 6-0 record feels like a trap especially if the Canes wrap up the regular season series with two more wins. The Predators would enter the series seemingly with no pressure and nothing to lose. From that starting point, a win in one of the first two games in Raleigh could go a long way toward energizing the team.
The possible advantage: Nashville seemed to struggle penetrating the Hurricanes blue line offensively and also at times defending the Hurricanes speed which if it continues is the best of both worlds for the Hurricanes.
Netting it out
My 2 cents a bit early is that the winners of Carolina/Tampa Bay in the Central Division and Vegas/Colorado in the Western Division determines the Cup finalists as long as those series do not suck too much out of the winners. For the Hurricanes versus the Lightning, I think the series comes down to if Mrazek and/or Nedeljkovic can match Vasilevskiy and if so if Aho, Staal, etc. can outplay the Lightning’s top forwards in a series that features two pretty good defensive corps.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Thoughts on the Lightning?
2) Thoughts on the Panthers?
3) Thoughts on the Stars?
4) Thoughts on the Predators?