In the first round, the Lightning faced a team in the Panthers they had never met before in the playoffs. As they move on to the second round, it’s deja vu all over again. They meet the Carolina Hurricanes for, you guessed it, the first time in the playoffs. Here is my Hurricanes-Lightning playoff preview.
During the 56 game regular season, Carolina took the top spot in the Central. They played well throughout the season and shouldn’t be overlooked by any stretch. Over the last three seasons, we’ve seen the Hurricanes be a regular playoff participant. In the 2018-19 season, they were in the Eastern Conference Finals losing to Boston. After disposing of the Nashville Predators in the first round, Carolina has been to the second round now three straight seasons. To take this team lightly would be a grave mistake.
We also know about the Tampa Bay Lightning. Reigning Stanley Cup Champions. Looking to stake their claim on a repeat. The Lightning’s legacy is in play here. They have qualified for the playoffs seven of the last eight seasons. In that time, they have two Cup appearances and four Conference Finals to go along with the 2020 Stanley Cup. Their recent playoff pedigree is rock solid. This should present us with a fantastic second round series.
Both teams have some incredible offensive weapons that make up their Top 6. Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen on Carolina’s top line is as formidable as there is in the league. Almost impossible to spell correctly on the first try and almost as hard to stop on the ice. They may not be quite like Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov but they’re in the same neighborhood.
There is no drop off on second lines either. Nino Niederreiter, Vinnie Trochek and Martin Necas can make things difficult for any defense with their speed and tenacity. On the Tampa side, Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Steven Stamkos are no slouches. The Lightning’s second line is getting hot scoring five goals and four assists in two of the last three games.
Lightning fans know the third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. Many believe, including yours truly, that this line meant the difference in the Cup run last year. No doubt, they will be called upon in this series if the Lightning hope to advance.
A word of caution here as Carolina’s bottom two lines scored 8 goals and 8 assists in the Nashville series. Safe to say, the Hurricanes don’t advance without these two lines. The Lightning 3rd and 4th liners mustered up 6 goals and 4 assists. Peeling the onion back a bit, Nashville’s defense isn’t quite Florida’s defense. Additionally, while the bottom two lines of Carolina outscored Tampa’s, the opposite is true of the top two lines. Carolina’s top six scored 14 goals in the first round while Tampa’s tallied 18 goals. Advantage: Lightning by a slight margin.
The Lightning defense is arguably one of the best in the league. Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergavhev, Erik Cernak and Jan Rutta are a formidable group. Carolina rolls out Dougie Hamilton, Brady Skjei, Brett Pesce and Jacob Slavin among others but this group is surprisingly effective.
Carolina relies on a team defense where the forwards work in the defensive zone supports their defensive corps. They were slightly better than the Lightning in goals against in both the regular season and the first round. Though Nashville’s offensive woes have been clearly noted throughout the league.
One of the keys to this series will be which team is stingier on defense. While Tampa may have more household names, underestimating the strength of Carolina’s defense could be a critical error. The old adage is that defense wins championships. It is abundantly clear to anyone watching, these two defenses are championship caliber.
One edge the Lightning may have is that while Carolina’s team defensive stats are slightly better, having Nikita Kucherov back could be the difference. Taking out any former Hart Trophy winner from any team for a whole season is huge. Imagine Pittsburgh without Sidney Crosby or Washington without Alexander Ovechkin? Kucherov is back and could spell trouble for the Hurricanes defense. Advantage: Hurricanes by the slightest of margins.
What’s So Special?
Special teams can make the difference in a playoff series. Look at the Florida series. The Lightning won that special teams battle in a big way and it helped them lock down that round. They scored 40% of their power play opportunities. Did I mention Kucherov is back? The Hurricanes managed 21% effectiveness against Nashville. While this conversion rate isn’t bad, it was against the Predators who for the regular season were below average at 75% in killing penalties.
Killing penalties was a strong point for both teams in the regular season. The challenge for Carolina is to stop the red hot Lightning power play. If they can bring them down to earth a bit, it could mean the difference in the series. It’ll be interesting to see if Carolina can play a disciplined game to avoid penalties and having to kill off penalties against this vaunted Lightning power play.
For the Lightning, they were a top killing team in the league in the regular season but struggled against Florida in the first round. Though getting back Goodrow will only help the overall defense for Tampa as well as the penalty kill units. Advantage: Carolina, by a slight margin.
Minding the Net
In this series, the goalie matchup is unique. In Tampa, Andrei Vasilevskiy is all-world. Any legit hockey fan knows Vasy. He’s been a stalwart of the recent perennial playoff powerhouse. He already has a Stanley Cup to his name and he’s only 26 years old.
Between the pipes for Carolina is a guy most fans have never heard of – Alex Nedeljkovic. Boy, the Hurricanes are testing the hell out of my spell check. You may not have heard of him but you will soon, I promise. Nedeljkovic wasn’t even on the radar at the beginning of the season. Petr Mrazek was the incumbent #1 goalie with James Reimer backing him up. Both of these veteran goalies have playoff experience. Both had very decent regular seasons but this kid, Nedeljkovic, beat them both out at the start of the playoffs.
As the playoffs go from the first round to the second round, the games get tighter. Teams are more closely aligned in their overall game. This series is no different. In goal, the difference could come down to experience and that’s where the edge goes to the Lightning. Advantage: Lightning.
Hurricane-Lightning Playoff Preview Prediction
For those who thought the first round against Florida was a good series, this series will be closer. These are two teams that match up well against each other. The advantage for the Lightning is that they are finally all healthy enough to play. The advantage for the Hurricanes is their recent playoff experience and they are the Central Division champs.
I have seen the narrative recently pushed by Carolina that somehow they are the underdogs. That is pure rubbish. How can the number one seed in the division be an underdog to the number three team? That is incongruent, though if they are truly the underdogs, it is because after seeing the Lightning with their full team in action, many still consider the Lightning the best team in the league.
Ultimately, I believe the deep and extensive playoff experience for the Lightning will help them prevail. This series will be close. Prediction: Lightning in six games.
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