Part 1 of 2 previewing the Canes versus the Lightning looked at the state of the Canes (and to a lesser degree the Lightning) exiting round 1. You can find that HERE.
Part 2 looks more directly at the match up between the two.
The regular season series was pretty even. Each team had a game or two in which they were the better team by a wide margin but in general the games were pretty evenly paid. The winner of this series will not be so much which team is better but rather which team plays better for the next two weeks. That might sound like the same thing, but the nuance is that every team has a range of levels in which it plays. Both of these teams have high ceilings that are good enough to outplay the other but also floors that put them at a slight disadvantage. This series is about finding something close to peak Hurricanes hockey for 2020-21. I do not think the Hurricanes medium level in round 1 will be enough.
Where both teams are dangerous
Ability to quickly capitalize on errors in transition
Both teams have speed and skill throughout the lineup. With that comes the ability to strike fast and often. If either team has a rough time of it defensively, the potential is there to very quickly dig sizeable holes that cannot be overcome.
Both teams can also be deadly on the power play. With Nikita Kucherov back in the lineup, Stamkos and Kucherov on opposite sides of the ice combined with enough other skill players and players good at their roles makes for a top-shelf power play. At times, tremendous play by the Canes penalty kill has been a story line in Canes success. Maybe that is needed to win a game, but that would be a treacherous path to pick to win an entire series against the Lightning. Better is to play sound hockey and minimize unnecessary penalties that have plagued the Canes at times. On the Canes side of the ledger, the team’s power play challenged for tops in the NHL during the regular season but has not been at the top of its game for multiple weeks now. Timing would be great for the Canes power play to refind a higher gear.
In the NHL playoffs significantly more often than not, the team whose best players play better usually wins. With trophy candidates and winners like Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, this is a strength of the Lightning. In the past couple years, the Hurricanes have grown a group of young players including Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Sebastian Aho who have the potential to match other teams’ high-end talent. Despite the importance of being 20 players deep, each team has a group of high-end players who have the potential to swing the entire series if they get going.
Potential area for concern for both teams
I think the greatest potential sinking point for each team is if it comes off its attention to detail in terms of puck management and/or defensive play. As stated above, even relatively short lapses have the potential to dig holes big enough to decide hockey games. The Hurricanes struggled a bit in this regard in the latter half of the Predators series often controlling play but at the same time interjecting an occasional horrible, costly mistake. Similarly, the Lightning were not great at keeping the puck out of their net in round 1. They won more via strong offensive play and with a bit of help from Florida’s goaltending woes that saw they finally find at least some help going to goalie number three after three changes.
Both teams will pressure the other on the forecheck and with pace in transition, so there should be chances each way. Neither team will be perfect in this regard, but if one struggles significantly more than the other in this regard, I think it will decide individual games and with that potentially the series.
What decides the series
Mostly summarizing what is above, I think a couple key factors will decide the series.
1) Best against best
If one team’s stars outshine the others by a wide margin, I think that will be an insurmountable gap to overcome for a ‘team effort.’ I really think that Sebastian Aho’s time is now. He had a productive series against Nashville, but the one thing that as lacking (maybe not his fault) was getting his entire line going. Teravainen had a ‘meh’ series offensively (was still sound defensively) and Svechnikov was a non-factor. Aho was paired with Necas and McGinn in game 6 who did produce, so it will be interesting to see if Brind’Amour keeps that trio together for the Tampa Bay series. Other top players like Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Jordan Staal and others also need to play at a high level to match the Lightning’s star power.
2) Attention to detail
Also as noted above, if either team struggles defensively, that could be the kiss of death. Both teams are good in transition and taking advantages of mistakes in bad places. The Hurricanes slipped in this regard in the middle to latter part of the Predators series which is a concern, but the Lightning were not great defensively in round 1 either. An significant advantage here significantly tilts the ice.
3) Goaltending and special teams
For any playoff series goaltending and special teams have the potential to decide the series. Alex Nedeljkovic was equal or at least close enough to Juuse Saros in round 1 and needs do the same against Vezina-winner Andrei Vasilevskiy. As good as the Canes special teams were all season, I still would not care to roll the dice on a power play battle for the series. With both teams being strong here, the advantage to be gained here could be quantity from lack of discipline or unnecessary penalties.