With the start of the playoffs today, the site is busy with a few different game-day articles and other things. Check out also:
That makes for a good jumping off point for previewing game 1 of the series. Through six games during the regular season, the Hurricanes had the upper hand by a sizable margin with a perfect 6-0 record and a big 23 to 7 goal differential. But then the tables turned in the final two-game set to close out the regular season with Nashville winning twice by a similarly lopsided 8 to 1 margin for the two-game set. With a number of regulars out for finale, the meaningfulness of those two games is questionable, but I think not completely insignificant from the Predators’ side. I wrote about that in some detail HERE. Long story short I do think winning a game or two was important for the Predators to build confidence, but I do not think any kind of advantage was gained from two end of regular season wins.
At a basic level, I think the Hurricanes are a better and deeper team as indicated by the season series and regular season records in total. But in the playoffs, that offers an advantage that can be capitalized on but no guarantees. I think the wild cards in trying to find a path to victory for the Predators hinges on creating a game favorable for Juuse Saros to be an X factor and trying to change the game from the regular season either via making physicality more central or making tactical changes. For the Hurricanes, I think it is about getting peak play across a roster that is better. If a few players hit a playoff slumber, the gap in talent and depth shrinks to nothing or even negative.
Against that backdrop, my watch points for game 1 follow…
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Nashville Predators
1) Establishing early momentum
The Predators enter game 1 wanting to carry forward their advantage from the last two regular season games. The Hurricanes enter game 1 aiming to make it clear that that was a last games/weird lineups anomaly and get right back to being the better team. Sprinkle in playoff intensity and the fact that the Predators will try to amp up the physicality to try to gain an advantage and the first 10 minutes could be on par with the phenomenal series opener between Florida and Tampa Bay in the Central Division Florida series.
In these first 10 minutes, I will be watching to make sure that the Hurricanes can at the match the Predators physically but at the same time get to skating such that they are not just entering into a plug, grind and battle style of play that fails to use the edge they have in speed and skill.
2) Playing between the dots
Probably the biggest theme permeating my previous articles on the series is the Hurricanes’ need to commit to play hockey between the face-off circles and at the top of the crease in the offensive zone. If they do that, Juuse Saros’ job becomes challenging and there are likely to be chances where he cannot be a factor because of sight lines and crease clutter. But the Predators blue line, especially the bottom half, with make it unpleasant to play there. Who wins the battle for that ice space will dictate the quality over quantity of the Hurricanes’ scoring chances and could well decide the series.
On Monday, I will be watching to see to what degree the Hurricanes get pucks and people to the front of Saros versus instead being funneled to the outside for quantity but low quality shot attempts.
3) Special teams
Arguably the biggest advantage for the Hurricanes in the season series was its special teams play as it was throughout the rest of the regular season with the Hurricanes finishing second in power play proficiency and third in penalty kill success. But the Hurricanes power play was a bit lethargic and less productive at the end of the season. Regaining that special teams advantage after a week of practice would be significant, so I will be watching to see if a week of practice can reignite a power play that was incredibly good during the majority of the regular season.
4) In net — Alex Nedeljkovic?
Rod Brind’Amour did not say so definitely, but it seems Alex Nedeljkovic is likely to get the start. He has looked every bit up to the task in the regular season, and he also has a history at every lower level he has played at as being on top of his game in the post-season. But this is the NHL Playoffs which can sometimes be a different animal. At the same time, I like Nedeljkovic’s chances of just carrying forward what he has been doing for months, but also will be watching closely just to make sure he steadies the heart rate early and gets off to a good start.
Another interesting watch point specific to Nedeljkovic is his puck-handling. His ability to receive and play pucks forward was a positive for the Hurricanes getting out of their own end quickly and also attacking in transition. But toward the end of the season, teams started to adjust tactically pushing to quickly play up into passing lanes when Canes defensemen posted up on the wall making for a bit longer pass. Nashville was not as aggressive as others in this regard, but Florida and to some degree Tampa Bay tried to force Nedeljkovic into a bit more decision-making and checking down to secondary options. With errors often resulting in immediate in along scoring chances, that can be precarious. No doubt the Canes video coaches are seeing the same thing and adjusting as well, so I will be curious to see to what degree Nashville looks to take away first outlets, to what degree the Canes adjust where/when defensemen look to receive the puck and if/to what degree Nedeljkovic can continue to use his puck-handling as an advantage even if there are ongoing tactical adjustments that make it a bit less simple.
As noted above, Juuse Saros has the potential to be an X factor. In my opinion, the key to suppressing that comes not so much from pretty snipes but ugly traffic. In any playoff series, goaltending can swing results, so what happens in or near the crease at both end of the ice is worth watching.
Playoff hockey is back, and it feels like it is now an annual thing which is absolutely fabulous!
Tailgating starts as soon as everyone can sneak out of work.
The puck drops at 8:07pm at PNC Arena.