Were the regular season to end right now, the Carolina Hurricanes would win the Discover Central Division, have the top seed and be set to play the Nashville Predators in the first round.
Given the Canes perfect record against the Predators and needing to beat only one of the Lightning and Panthers, that would be a favorable starting point.
With a big back-to-back set on Monday and Tuesday against the Lightning, today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a quick look at possible playoff match ups within the division.
How much value does the top spot have?
I think winning the division is significant for multiple reasons. First, that result sees Florida and Tampa Bay playing a battle for Florida in the first round which means the Hurricanes would need to beat only one of the two and not both. There are no guarantees (just ask Tampa Bay about two years ago versus Columbus) or sure thing easy series, but at least during the regular season Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida have been a notch higher than the group of teams battling for the fourth divisional playoff spot. So based on that, only having to beat one of the other top three and catching someone else in the first round is favorable.
In addition, at least so far the Hurricanes seem to have the Predators’ number winning all six meetings. Again, that does not guarantee playoff success, but I would still rather take my chances with a team that the Canes were significantly better than in regular season match ups.
Finally, winning the division assures home ice advantage at least for the first two rounds of the playoffs that are in division. Especially against the Lightning, any small advantage the Canes can get could prove to be the difference.
The road to a deep playoff run goes through Tampa Bay
Until eliminated, one has to consider that the road out of the divisional playoffs and into the semi-finals runs through Tampa Bay. The team will add Nikita Kucherov to a team that is deep and top heavy at the same time. The team can make a legitimate claim to having the best NHLer at all two position and a top five player at the other (Vasilevskiy in goal, Hedman on the blue line, and once up to speed Kucherov at forward). Depending on how the standings fall, it is not inconceivable that the Hurricanes play the Lightning in the first round, lose a hard-fought series and see the Lightning go on to repeat in which case, it will be impossible to tell if maybe the Hurricanes were among the best couple teams in the NHL but maybe just drew a tough early match up.
Regardless of when the Hurricanes play the Lightning, by virtue of being the Stanley Cup Champions and among the NHL’s regular season best in recent years, I think they are the team to beat.
On the one hand, the Hurricanes can match or even better the Lightning for speed and pace and are at least much closer to matching them depth-wise this season. On the other hand, the series would arguably be the ultimate test for a best versus best match up that challenges the Hurricanes young core to find a higher level to emerge victorious.
If that series comes to be, it has the potential to be the best series of the entire divisional playoffs and a fun one to watch.
Contemplating the possible #4 match ups
As noted above, the Nashville Predators seem to be an ideal match up at #4 if the Hurricanes win the division based on the regular season dominance. I think where the Predators struggle versus the Hurricanes is matching quickness and also pace in transition. When the Hurricanes start buzzing against the Predators, they seem to win every race to loose pucks which sees them playing defense for extended periods in their own end and also caught here and there in transition. While I do like those advantages in a first-round match up, I would not anticipate the series being as easy as the 6-0 regular season mark suggests. The Predators are a team that struggled early, only recently put things together but could still have another gear in terms of reaching their peak for the 2020-21 season. If they keep rising, the May version of the Predators would be much better than especially the early-season Predators team that was still trying to figure it out.
The Blackhawks remind me a bit of the Red Wings in that on paper the Hurricanes would figure to be much better, but that has not really translated to the play on the ice. The Hurricanes are basically 2-2-1 against the Blackhawks with a shootout win being the -1 at the end. On the one hand, I think the Hurricanes are enough better than the Blackhawks. On the other hand, the Hurricanes seem to struggle with teams that can skate and play aggressively.
With three games in hand on the fourth place Predators, the Dallas Stars are still very much in the playoff hunt. I view the Stars as a wild card. The team has not been overly impressive thus far in the 2020-21 regular season, but then they really were not season either until they caught fire in the playoffs and came within a couple wins of hoisting the Cup.
Despite not feeling like it would be as easy as the 6-0 regular season mark suggests, my preference would be to play Nashville. I do not like the wild card potential that the Stars are again a team that peaks at the right time, and despite feeling like the Blackhawks are not as good as the Predators, maybe they match up better.
Pick your own poison?
The unique 2020-21 schedule could offer an interesting lead up to the playoffs. If the Hurricanes can stay atop the division, they could play a significant role in deciding who the first-round playoff match up is. The Hurricanes finish with three straight home games against the Blackhawks before playing two straight against the Predators. If those teams are still fourth and fifth, how the Hurricanes finish could determine who they play. The sets could also then see the Hurricanes play the Blackhawks an unheard of 10 times in the span of a couple weeks or the Predators nine straight times counting the end of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.
Could this week decide the division?
There are still a good number of games afterward, so nothing will be definitely decided, but this week the Hurricanes pair of two-game sets against the Lightning and Panthers could go a long way toward deciding the division. If the Hurricanes hit a rough patch and lose three of four games, they will enter the last nine games of the season chasing the lead. If instead, the Hurricanes win four of four, they will have a pretty sizable lead with mostly games against teams below the playoff cut line remaining.
What say you Canes fans?
1) How important do you think winning the division and the #1 seek is in the big picture for a deep playoff run?
2) If the Canes can win the division, who would you prefer as a #4 team for the Canes to play in the first round?
3) How much stock do you put in the Hurricanes 6-0 record over the Predators if they become the first round playoff opponent?