If Tuesday’s game was any kind of preview of what to expect in a playoff series between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Tampa Bay Lightning, such a match up would be an absolute treat. Both teams have the ability to play with pace and pressure an opposing defense and also the ability to finish. The animosity between the two teams has increased immensely over the course of the eight games played. And with the Lightning being the reigning Stanley Cup champions and the Hurricanes on the rise, the series has the potential to be another epic battle just like the 2019 first-round series against the Washington Capitals.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe ponders what it would take to beat the Lightning in a playoff series.
1) Matching Andrei Vasilevskiy
In any series where one team gets significantly better goaltending, that advantage is nearly impossible to overcome in the playoffs. To beat the Lightning, the Hurricanes’ goaltending will need to match or be very close to Vasilevskiy. There are a few interesting angles on that. First, Vasilevskiy is fairly considered among the best in the NHL. His 1.90 goals against average in the 2020 playoffs is similarly stellar. That would suggest a tall task to match him. But at least during the regular season, the Hurricanes netminders generally have. Both Petr Mrazek and Alex Nedeljkovic have better numbers than Vasilevskiy and have similarly performed well in the head to head match ups. The playoffs can be different, but when described as just needing more of the same from the Canes goalies, the task does not seem so daunting.
2) Winning best against best
Versus the Lightning, having to match elite players does not end at the goaltending position. Victor Hedman has a legitimate claim to being the best defenseman in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov who figures to return for the playoffs is a top 5 type forward. And Brayden Point ranks pretty high too. If before a Canes versus Lightning series, you told me that the best three players of the series would be Vasilevskiy, Hedman and Kucherov, I would figure the Canes chance of winning to be very low. Yes, full roster depth is needed to be successful in the playoffs, but that is table stakes that most of the top teams have. Generally, series are decided by which team’s top players are better. In that regard, the Lightning represent arguably the toughest match up in the NHL in that regard. The series could likely come down to if young offensive stars Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas are ready to take next steps on the big stage and also if Vincent Trocheck can continue what he is doing in the regular season during the playoffs. As evidenced by Tuesday’s physical battle, the ice gets smaller and more dangerous during the playoffs. Tampa Bay’s offensive stars showed an ability to produce and thrive in tighter hockey games during the 2020 NHL Playoffs and that resulted in a Stanley Cup win. Can the Hurricanes young stars similarly navigate the challenges of playoff hockey and be as good or better than the Lightning stars?
3) The ability to find an edge, break or X factor
If the regular season series is indication, the gap between the two teams is small, small enough that a couple small things could be enough to decide the series. We have already seen some back and forth in terms of tactical adjustments coaching-wise. John Cooper seemed to identify a couple changes that made differences. Rod Brind’Amour and his staff seemed to be able to react and also deserve credit for having the Canes in the right mindset to bounce back strong after two sub-par efforts. That ability to rebound quickly can be critical in the playoffs.
More generally than coaching, any kind of X factor that steals a game of two could well be the difference. Against, the Washington Capitals some combination of a Warren Foegele surge and an over the top home crowd and atmosphere propelled the Hurricanes quickly back into the Washington Capital series after losing the first two games. A huge game by a supporting player, a couple consecutive bounces that result in scoring plays or a coach being able to find/exploit a weakness could be the difference. Especially with the teams seeing each other eight times, there is plenty of film to dissect.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Which of the three factors that I listed do you see as most important in deciding a potential playoff series between the Hurricanes and Lightning?
2) What other factors would you add to this list?