Part 1 of 2 today looked backward at the Canes series win over the New Jersey Devils. You can find that article HERE.
Part 2 looks forward to the series against the Florida Panthers.
Entering the last week of the regular season, my strong preference was to play either the New York Islanders or the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round and steer clear of a Panthers team that seemed to be rounding into form just in time for the playoffs. Through two rounds including an upset of the regular season juggernaut Bruins, my preference to avoid the Panthers has proven justified. Most significantly, the Panthers are playing their best hockey at the right time of year. After extended struggles in South Florida under the weight of a heavy contract, Sergei Bobrovsky has been showing signs of being the goalie that Florida hoped to be signing long-term for $10 million per year. Off-season acquisition Matthew Tkachuk was recently named a Hart Trophy finalist and is living up to that billing in the playoffs. Coupled with underrated Aleksander Barkov, the duo offers size and physical play in the form of players who can skate and score. The Panthers also have an element of the skill and skating like New Jersey such that they can attack quickly in transition when the puck is turned over. And finally, after a New Jersey series light on physical play and dangerous players if you put your head down to fish for a puck, the Panthers will offer a return to rugged, physical and potentially dangerous play like the Islanders series.
I think it is fair to say that the Panthers offer the best of a mix between the Islanders and Devils. Like the Islanders, Florida can bring some physical and nasty in the form of Tkachuk, Radko Gudas and others and also potentially strong netminding. But unlike the Islanders and more like the Devils, Florida has enough higher-end scoring talent to pot a batch of goals in a hurry if you lapse defensively and/or with puck management.
Keys to Canes’ success
1) More of the same from the Canes blue line
To be completely honest, the Canes ability to score at will in the New Jersey series surprised me. Coupled with strong defensive play in the four wins, the series was much easier than I expected. Though the scoring was nice, I think the cornerstone of the team’s success going forward will be the play of the back end. (Knock on wood) Still intact health-wise, the Canes top 4 on defense are capable of lining up opposite some of the NHL’s best scorers and winning that battle. Paired with a Brind’Amour team trademark of having a forward group that to a man skates and backchecks hard, the Canes have the potential to win with their defense.
2) (More? New? Same?) X factors offensively
Per my article recapping the New Jersey series, Jordan Martinook leading the way offensively and lighting up the Devils for 10 scoring points in 5 games came out of nowhere, especially after not scoring a single point in the first round. Just a hunch (and I hope I am wrong), but I do not see Martinook continuing to put the team on his back scoring-wise. More likely, the Canes will need to find new and/or additional sources of offense for the Eastern Conference Finals. The fourth line has been playing well and chipping in. Could they be ready for a break out. Both Martin Necas and Jesperi Kotkaniemi produced in the second round. Is one or both ready for a scoring outburst? Sebastian Aho has been steady and produced a couple clutch goals but has not really caught fire. Could he be ready to to find a higher gear and be the next torch bearer offensively? Regardless, the Hurricanes need to continue to get more scoring than seems reasonable given regular season output which will require a few players stepping up to find a higher gear.
3) Steady Freddy
With the Hurricanes scoring in bunches against the Devils, the team did not really need Frederik Andersen to do anything special to collect wins. Only the overtime-winner in game 5 was really contested. Andersen was solid in that game and generally throughout the series other than the 8-4 train wreck loss. Again I hope I am wrong, but my expectation is that the Hurricanes will need more from him against the Panthers.
What does it take for the Canes to win?
I think it is primarily #1 and #2 above. If the Canes falter defensively or with puck management, Florida is built to counterattack in transition quickly which could make for a tough series with an uphill battle trying to outscore a team despite giving up the better chances. I also think the Canes need an X factor or two offensively. With the Canes minus a couple finishers entering the playoffs, I said that Sebastian Aho and his line would need to put the team on his back offensively for at least one extended and important stretch for the Canes to go deep in the playoffs. Aho is playing well and leading the team in scoring, but he has yet to hit a higher gear where he is clearly the best player on the ice. That might be what it takes to beat the Panthers. Finally, as is always the case in any playoff series, goaltending or special teams can be the deciding factor. Bobrovsky maybe finding his mostly missing higher gear scares me. But Andersen is also playing well.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What do you see as the key(s) to the series?
2) Who do you predict will be the next player(s) on the Canes to rise up and be difference-makers?
3) Who wins the series and in how many games?