This is article is part 1 of 2 previewing the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Tampa Bay Lightning which this part focusing on the state of the Hurricanes (and to a lesser degree the Lightning) exiting the first round.
Canes versus Predators
On the Hurricanes side, the first round was an arduous task. The Canes score points for ‘survive and advance’ which is all that really matters, but they claimed very few of any points that could be available for being impressive or dominant in the process. In regulation and not counting empty-net or after empty net goals, the Hurricanes won by 2 goals once, won by 1 goal once and finished the other 4 games tied. After winning six straight against the Predators in the regular season before losing the last two games with minimal significance, the Hurricanes were better by only a slim margin in the playoff series. As noted at the beginning, that is not a horrible thing. In the playoffs, the other teams are always decent or better too, and advancing is all that really matters. But at the same time, I do not think the first round version of the Carolina Hurricanes will be enough to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning if they play well in round 2. But the flipside is that the peak version of the Hurricanes from the 2020-21 season is much better, so it is just a matter of refinding that higher gear.
1) Strength down the middle
Sebastian Aho had an odd series in the sense that he was very productive with seven points in six games but was mostly unable to boost his line with him. When Brind’Amour shuffled the deck for game 6, McGinn and Necas were productive, but Aho was unable to spark Svechnikov or Teravainen. But nonetheless, Aho had a strong series even if in a bit of a vacuum. Jordan Staal also had a strong series with clutch scoring. He led the way offensively in game 1 with two goals to get the Canes off to a good start, and he scored arguably the biggest goal of the series with his overtime game-winner in game 5. And Trocheck had a bit of Aho to his series in that his line never really clicked, but he still managed to notch a couple goals.
2) Blue line leaders
Despite playing only three games, Jaccob Slavin was a difference-maker. If he was affected physically in his return for games 5 and 6, it did not show. He also made key plays offensively in both games. All three of his assists came after the midway point of the third period and either tied or won the game. When Slavin was out, Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei played a massive amount of minutes trying to hold together a shaky blue line.
3) Steadiness in net
I thought Alex Nedeljkovic was too shaky with rebound control and a bit fortunate in games 1 and 2. And he was victimized by one horrible rebound control error and almost another later in the series. But once he settle in he was solid in total and had a tremendous knack for making big saves when the team really needed them in the latter half of games. Nedeljkovic gave his team a chance to win all six games which is what a team wants this time of year.
What did not work
1) Too many players below peak level
One thing that stood out was how many of Canes top players played significantly below their peak. Andrei Svechnikov was a non-factor offensively collecting his only goal into an empty net with the score already 4-2. Dougie Hamilton salvaged a series with two key offensive plays in the series finale but was a train wreck defensively for the most part, especially when the team desperately needed him to step up when Jaccob Slavin was out. Teuvo Teravainen was his usual steady self defensively, but the peak version of the Hurricanes needs him to score at more than a 27-point 82-game pace. Nino Niederreiter scored in the first game but then nothing else in the next five games.
2) Lack of attention to detail
Though not peak Hurricanes, I thought the team was reasonably sound defensively in the first two games. After that and maybe because of Slavin’s absence, the Hurricanes were prone to fits of shoddy play defensively and with puck management. Game 4 was the peak of the problems when the Hurricanes outplayed the Predators by every measure except for ‘big oopses’ which the Hurricanes made enough of to gift the Predators into the game. Even in the two wins that followed and with Slavin back in the lineup, the Hurricanes still struggled with fits of potentially costly mistakes. Hamilton was in the middle of more than his fair share, but just in general the entire team’s attention to detail was lacking.
The Lightning in round 1
The story from the Lightning side is a bit similar to the Hurricanes. Tampa Bay advanced in six games just like the Hurricanes. But considering that Florida was a mess in net, the series win was maybe not that impressive. The Lightning gave up four or more goals in three of the games and rode some combination of strong offensive play and ‘iffy’ opposing goaltending to high-scoring wins. Andrei Vasilevskiy was not bad but also was not at the top of his game, and the Lightning looked vulnerable in transition which is in the Canes’ tool bag. So much like the Hurricanes, the Lightning get credit for surviving and advancing but do not enter the second round firing on all cylinders.
Reasons for optimism/pessimism
Playing both sides of the same coin, I think a positive is that the Hurricanes have room to be much better in round 2 if more players can find a higher gear. But at the same time if they do not, I do not think a Hurricanes team playing at 70 percent of maximum will be good enough to beat the Lightning.
I am especially considered about the defense. Per what I said on Twitter, I am concerned that Brett Pesce might be laboring a bit. He was hesitant to try to close on shooters on multiple occasions which is not his normal game and also was slow stepping up on a puck just inside the blue line leading to an easy pass across and scoring chance in alone. I thought Slavin looked good in games 5 and 6 but could seemingly regress with his injury at any point. With the bottom half of the blue line counting Hamilton being ‘meh’ so far, the prospect of having Slavin or Pesce out of the lineup or limited physically is terrifying against a Lightning team that is deep offensively.
But whereas, I think the Hurricanes might have been a bit overmatched offensively against the Lightning a couple years ago, I think the peak version of the Hurricanes is a good match for the Lightning. And the potential for both teams to find that higher gear and trade punches in a fast-paced game presents the potential for this series to be absolutely phenomenal.