With the NHL still dragging its feet on releasing, we are another day closer to the start of the first round of the NHL playoffs for the Hurricanes but still without knowing when that is. Based on nothing but gut feel and my thoughts on NHL priorities, I predicted on Twitter yesterday that the Hurricanes playoff opener would be slotted for 3pm on Sunday or otherwise a normal 7 or 7:30pm start time on Monday. Here is hoping we get news one way or another today.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe looks at the series from a tactical angle.
The Hurricanes were dominant through six games in the season series before falling in the last two. The question is whether the Predators found some new tactics/strategies in the last two games, if the results were at least partly because the Hurricanes had little to play for or if maybe the Predators were just overdue. I think it was mostly a combination of the circumstances, especially for the last game, and maybe a little bit of the Predators just being due to finally win a game or two. That said, I do think a couple carry overs could affect the playoff series.
What follows are a list of things to watch as the series progresses.
1) Canes determination to play inside the dots
On a good night, the current iteration of the Predators reminds me a bit of the good version of the Columbus Blue Jackets that the Canes have struggled with in past years. The Predators are maybe light on high-end scoring but are built to fare well in tighter games. With Juuse Saros rising in the second half of the season and a blue line that is talented at the top and physical at the bottom, the Predators have the ability to force play to outside the dots. The result can be a reasonably high volume of very low quality shots and reliance on a goalie to mostly just handle a volume of fairly routine saves. One of the hallmarks of the 2020-21 season has been a forward group that made a concerted effort to get the front of the net and the team’s ability to get pucks there too. Players one would expect like Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck, Jesper Fast, Warren Foegele and others did the heavy lifting, but the Canes skill players chipped in too.
The series could prove to be a test on the Canes ability to stay the course in terms of getting pucks and bodies to the top of the crease against a team that could make it difficult to do so. Playing pretty hockey, especially if it is outside the face-off dots, and trying to play ‘beat the goalie’ could be a recipe for many iterations of the Canes broadcast crew pointing to shot totals and chalking up losses to facing a hot goalie.
From the outset, I will be watching to see how much the Canes can get pucks and people between the face-off dots.
2) The forechecks
The Hurricanes have evolved a bit offensively since riding the strength of its forecheck into the 2019 NHL playoffs and riding it to a couple series wins. I would argue that the team’s ability to attack quickly at transition points plays a slightly larger role in the team’s offensive success these days, but the forecheck is still integral to the team’s style of play especially at its peak level and is an unsung hero in reducing pressure on the Canes defense when it is clicking. As noted above, the top half of the Predators’ blue line is one of its strengths with Roman Josi being among the NHL’s best as a puck-moving defenseman. So trying to gain an edge via forechecking pressure will be challenging against the Predators.
On the other side of the ledger, the Predators could really use a boost from forecheck-generated scoring chances. Except for the finale that featured a bunch of non-regulars, the Predators struggled at times to generate much offensively in the regular season series. And a check of their scoring leaders similarly suggests that the team is light on high-end scorers.
If either team can be dominant on the forecheck against blue lines that are built to handle the pressure, that could be the type of advantage that tilts the entire series.
2*) The forecheck if Alex Nedeljkovic starts
If Alex Nedeljkovic starts in net for the Hurricanes, the forecheck theme gains another element. One of Nedeljkovic’s strengths is his ability to play the puck. And despite his volume of handles, he was very good at avoiding costly miscues before he had a few right at the end of the season. If he plays, Nedeljkovic should continue to use his puck-handling ability to get the Hurricanes quickly going north-south without having to start from behind the end line. But at the same time, he needs to use good judgment for when he is in a position to advance the puck versus situations when there is no advantage gained, and he should therefore leave the puck for the defensemen. Toward the end of the season, teams started playing the forecheck to take away first and second outlets. The Panthers were more pronounced with this change in tactics, but one has to figure that the Predators are seeing the same thins that other teams have. If the Predators follow suit at least selectively, it will be important for Nedeljkovic to read when playing the puck gains an advantage and when it does not, and maybe even more significantly, it will be even more importantly for the Canes defensemen to read when they can post up to receive an outlet pass and go (often on line changes) or when players are there and able to take away passing lanes in which case they need to receive a simpler hand off wrapping around the net.
Gaffes that result directly in goals can swing a game and an entire series this time of year. At the same time, being able to avoid forechecking pressure altogether sometimes because of goalie play can be a huge advantage. If Nedeljkovic plays, how this sorts out could be a significant factor in the series.
3) Special teams
Special teams play was a significant factor in the Canes winning the first six games of the regular season series. The positive is that the Canes theoretically enter with a special teams edge. The negative is that the Predators have a ton of video to review and try to make adjustments. One has to like the Hurricanes’ advantage in terms of personnel and skill and also the 56-game track record that validates the quality of the team’s special teams play. But if the Predators can make adjustments and somehow take the advantage, the results could flip with the special teams advantage.
If I had to pick one thing to watch early in the series, it would be the Hurricanes determination/ability to get the puck and people between the face-off circles in front of the net. If the Canes bring the right grind to go with their skill, I just think they are better than the Predators. If instead, Nashville can Columbus the Canes forcing play to the outside, the ball is on the tee for Juuse Saros to be a difference-maker in a long series with the chance for an upset.
What say you Canes fans?
1) If you had to pick one Xs and Os things from my list, which do you think will be most important in the series?
2) What other system things have the potential to dictate results in the series?