First Round Preview: Central Division

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With the playoffs set to begin this weekend, we'll be analyzing each of the upcoming first round series. Feel free to check out the East Division if you haven't already done so.

(1) CAROLINA HURRICANES VERSUS (4) NASHVILLE PREDATORS

The Hurricanes won the Central Division on the strength of a 36-12-8 record. Carolina nearly matched last year’s win total (38) in 12 fewer games played. The team reached another gear in the third year under head coach Rod Brind’Amour and have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each season. It’s been quite the turnaround after the club didn’t make the playoffs in nine seasons previously. The Hurricanes made it to the Conference Final in 2019 and lost in the first round to Boston in 2020. They will be looking for a longer run this time. Expectations are much higher after the Hurricanes won their first division title since 2006, which is the year that the team won the Stanley Cup.

The Predators catapulted to the final playoff spot in the Central Division thanks to a late-season surge. Nashville started the year with a mark of 11-16-1 before going 19-7-1 to clinch a postseason berth. The Predators were 10 points out of the playoffs at the end of play on March 13, but went 20-7-1 afterward for the division’s best record. Nashville was also the top team in the NHL during that stretch in goals against per game at 2.07. The Predators have become a mainstay in the playoffs, while qualifying in each of the past seven years. However, the team has only won one round in the past three appearances, including a qualifying round loss to Arizona last year.

Carolina’s up-tempo style has served them well and the team’s strong defensive depth has helped the forwards push the pace by spending less time in their own end. Dougie Hamilton has led that group at both ends of the ice, while racking up 42 points in 55 games. The pending unrestricted free agent had an impressive 14-game point streak from Feb. 27-Mar. 27. Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin and Brady Skjei don’t have the offensive flair of Hamilton, but they have plenty of two-way ability as well. Jake Bean and hard-hitting defender Jani Hakanpaa add some additional depth.

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Nashville boasts a great defense corps as well, which is anchored by Roman Josi and his team-leading 33 points in 48 games. Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis are valuable top-four blueliners as well. Young defenders Alexandre Carrier and Dante Fabbro have stepped up over the course of the year. Unfortunately, the group as a whole isn’t as strong as it has been in years past and they could struggle with trying to slow down the Hurricanes. The Predators surrendered the eighth-most shots against per game played (31.3).

The Hurricanes allowed just 2.39 goals against per game played, which tied for second overall, and permitted just 28.2 shots against per game played. It’s been a great environment for goaltenders, as Petr Mrazek has flourished there and Alex Nedeljkovic emerged as a strong option between the pipes in 2020-21 during his rookie season. Nedeljkovic and James Reimer both posted 15 wins, while Mrazek won six of his 12 starts. He was limited by injuries, but returned to action down the stretch and should occupy the starter’s crease when the postseason begins.

The Predators also benefited from great goaltending this season. Juuse Saros carried the load rather than sharing the crease with counterpart Pekka Rinne. He registered 21 wins, while posting a 2.28 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. Saros led the league in games with over 40 saves, with six, and he will likely be under siege in most of the contests during this playoff series.

Sebastian Aho topped the Hurricanes in scoring with 24 goals and 57 points in 56 games. Vincent Trocheck supplied some much-needed secondary scoring down the middle, while producing 17 goals and 43 points in 47 outings. Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas continued their upward trajectories by topping 40 points as well. Jordan Staal and Nino Niederreiter have added some additional scoring. The Hurricanes had eight players reach double digits in goals this campaign, including two 20-goal scorers in Aho and Niederreiter. The Hurricanes finished just outside the top-10 in goals for per game played (3.13).

Filip Forsberg was Nashville’s most productive forward with 32 points, including 12 goals, in 39 appearances. Calle Jarnkrok, Mikael Granlund and Viktor Arvidsson flirted with the 30-point mark, while Eeli Tolvanen, Ryan Johansen and Erik Haula topped the 20-point plateau as well. The Predators had seven players hit double digits in goals, but Jarnrkok and Granlund led the way with 13 goals apiece. It’s the lowest total for a team leader among the playoff teams. Nashville’s 2.70 goals for per game played is also the lowest among all playoff-bound clubs.

Nashville deserves plenty of credit for the way they finished the 2020-21 season, but this is a tough draw in the first round against a Hurricanes team that can come at you in waves. Saros will have to stand on his head to steal this one and even that may not be enough. Nashville will have to be able to break through offensively against a team that had a superior save percentage (.915 to .912), but was far more successful offensively. Even though the Predators were hot down the stretch, Carolina still had better underlying numbers and the Hurricanes have a big advantage on special teams. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this was a short series, but the Predators could make it interesting if they play mostly at 5-on5. Still, it is tough to envision Nashville being able to pull off an upset in what has all the makings of a big mismatch on paper.

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Players to Watch

Filip Forsberg - Forsberg accounted for one goal, two assists and 13 shots in five games after he returned to the lineup in May from a 17-game absence. He was out with an upper-body injury, which helped snap his string of six straight seasons of 20 or more goals. Forsberg is the franchise’s all-time leader in playoff goals (26) and points (49).

Eeli Tolvanen - Tolvanen slowed down late in the year with one assist and 11 shots in his last seven outings. He racked up eight goals and 17 points in 19 appearances before that. Nashville will need that player to re-emerge in the postseason. Tolvanen led the team with six power-play goals and ranked third on the team with 12 points on the man advantage.

Andrei Svechnikov - Svechnikov had a solid season, but it was a step back from the pace he set in 2019-20. The 21-year-old forward will be an important player for the Hurricanes if the team is going to advance far in the postseason. Svechnikov was having a great playoffs in 2019, with four goals and seven points through six games, before he suffered a high-ankle sprain that cut his time short.

Alex Nedeljkovic - It’s unclear if Nedeljkovic will get a chance to play in the postseason, but he is certainly deserving of seeing some action. He was a big part of the team’s 2020-21 success. The rookie netminder went 15-5-3 on the year with three shutouts, a 1.90 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in a team-high 23 starts. Nedeljkovic also posted a mark of 2-1-0 versus Nashville in the regular season with a 1.64 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.

Additional Series Notes

The Hurricanes had the second-best power play in the league at 25.6%. Carolina also ranked third in the NHL with 42 power-play goals. Conversely, Nashville’s power-play percentage during the regular season ranked 24th at 17.6% and the team scored 28 times on the man advantage, which was good for 23rd overall.

The special teams mismatch extends to the penalty kill where Carolina ranked third overall with efficiency of 85.2%. They permitted the fifth-fewest goals against with 26. The Predators allowed the third-most power-play goals against with 42 and placed 29th overall in penalty kill percentage at 75.4%.

Nashville’s David Poile is the longest-tenured and winningest GM in NHL history, but he is still looking for his first Stanley Cup.

Jordan Staal leads all players on the Hurricanes in career playoff goals (27), assists (19), points (46) and games played (46). He won the Stanley Cup in 2009 with Pittsburgh.

The status of Jaccob Slavin for the start of the playoff is uncertain after he left the team’s second-to-last game due to a lower-body injury. The team is hopeful that he will in the postseason opener.

Hard-nosed forward Cedric Paquette (lower body) has been out since April 29 and Brock McGinn (upper body) hasn’t played since April 4. Brind’Amour is fairly confident that he will have a healthy team for the start of the playoffs. Paquette may be ready for Game 1, but McGinn’s availability is unclear.

Viktor Arvidsson has been sidelined since April 27 with an upper-body injury. He was listed as day-to-day and could be ready for Game 1.

Blueliners Mark Borowiecki (upper body) and Luca Sbisa (upper body) haven’t played since March 11 and Jan. 24, respectively. They were both considered to be week-to-week.

(2) FLORIDA PANTHERS VERSUS (3) TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Florida made big strides forward in the team’s second season under head coach Joel Quenneville. The Panthers lost in the qualifying round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but emerged as serious contenders this season thanks to an impressive 37-14-5 record. Florida managed to finish ahead of the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and will face their in-state rivals for the first time ever in the postseason. The Sunshine State Showdown features two of the top-10 teams in the league based on the overall standings.

The Panthers entered the 2020-21 campaign with forward depth concerns, but those quickly became non-factors. The emergence of Carter Verhaeghe as well as the improvements of Patric Hornqvist, Anthony Duclair and Alexander Wennberg provided Florida with plenty to work with up front. Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov were big parts of the offense before leaving as free agents, but the new additions clicked with superstar forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Frank Vatrano was also a solid depth contributor, while shifting up and down the lineup. Sam Bennett and Nikita Gusev were brought in during the year when injuries occurred. Bennett stood out as an especially good addition, while seeing time in the top-six forward group.

Tampa Bay’s forward depth took a bit of a hit due to injuries this season, but for the most part it wasn’t a problem. The team still produced within the top-10 for goals for per game played (3.21) and shots for per game played (30.2) despite some key absences. Steven Stamkos was having a great season before he was taken off the board because of a lower-body injury. The Lightning also played the entire regular season without the services of Nikita Kucherov, who led the team in scoring during the 2019-20 campaign as well as the playoffs. Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat flirted with the 50-point mark, while Yanni Gourde, Alex Killorn and Blake Coleman topped 30 points.

Florida’s defense corps was also a key part of the team’s success. MacKenzie Weegar stepped up in a big way, especially after Aaron Ekblad was injured, and Gustav Forsling filled in admirably on the top pairing. Keith Yandle also played well despite plenty of background noise that he was going to be cast aside and shipped out.

Without Ekblad, the Panthers don’t have a game changer on the back end like the Lightning have with Victor Hedman, but Weegar’s elevation certainly puts him in the conversation. Hedman shined in the playoffs last year en route to being named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner. His play has suffered down the stretch because of an injury, but he is expected to play through it. The Lightning also have plenty of depth on the back end with Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, David Savard and Mikhail Sergachev.

Sergei Bobrovsky remains a question mark going into the series. He registered 19 wins in 31 appearances despite an uninspiring 2.91 goals-against average and .906 save percentage. Bobrovsky also struggled last season and he didn’t perform well in the playoffs. If he falters then Chris Driedger could be called upon to step in for the Panthers. He posted 14 wins in 23 starts along with a 2.07 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.

Meanwhile, Andrei Vasilevskiy had a Vezina Trophy caliber season. He produced 31 wins in 42 starts, while posting a 2.21 goals-against average, a .925 save percentage and five shutouts. The Lightning don’t have any goaltending depth behind Vasilevskiy, but that hasn’t been an issue in most seasons.

The Panthers have been more than a match for the Lightning during the regular season, but the playoffs will be another matter entirely and Tampa Bay gets a massive boost if the team returns to full strength. Kucherov led the team to the Stanley Cup last year when Stamkos missed the vast majority of the team’s playoff run and getting them both back could drastically tip the balance in Tampa Bay’s favor. Vasilevskiy gives Tampa Bay an edge in the crease, especially if Bobrovsky gets a long leash and that could be the determining factor in this series if Florida’s new-found forward depth can hang around with Tampa Bay’s big guns.

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Players to Watch

Nikita Kucherov - Kucherov is a major difference maker. He appears to be on track to return for the start of the playoffs. Kucherov missed the entire 2020-21 campaign following off-season hip surgery. He will have to shake off the rust quickly, but he is so talented that getting his timing back probably won’t take very long. Kucherov has also been skating and practicing with the team for months, so conditioning shouldn’t be a problem.

Steven Stamkos - Stamkos is also on course to play when the postseason begins after missing the last 16 games of the regular season due to a lower-body injury. He was leading the team with 17 goals and he was tied for second on the Lightning with 34 points in 38 games before he was hurt. Stamkos only got to play in one game during the team’s championship run and he scored a goal in 2:47 of playing time.

Sam Bennett - Bennett has generated six goals, nine assists, 39 shots and 29 hits in 10 games with the Panthers since he was acquired from Calgary at the trade deadline. He has played well alongside Jonathan Huberdeau, who led the team with 61 points in 55 games during the regular season. Bennett has also been a productive playoff performer in the past two years with six goals and 13 points in 15 games. He has the potential to be a big X-factor in this series.

Chris Driedger - Driedger could make for a good insurance policy against Tampa Bay if Bobrovsky struggles. He had superior numbers during the regular season and played well against the Lightning. Driedger went 2-0-1 versus Tampa Bay in 2020-21 with a 2.33 goals-against average, a 9.13 save percentage and one shutout.

Additional Series Notes

The Panthers have not won a playoff series since 1996 when the team made it to the Stanley Cup Final in their third year of existence.

Florida was the only team to average more than three goals per game against the Lightning this season (3.88). Vasilevskiy struggled in the season series, going 2-4-0 with a 3.36 goals-against average and .898 save percentage. Still, he managed to place first in the NHL in wins for a fourth straight season.

The Panthers led the Central Division and ranked fourth overall in goals per game (3.36), while ranking first in the league in shots on goal per game (34.9).

Joel Quenneville’s 219 playoff games as a coach rank second all-time and his 119 postseason wins places him in third. He is just four behind Al Arbour for second.

Jon Cooper has guided the Lightning to four Conference Finals and two trips to the Stanley Cup Final, while making the postseason in seven of his eight full seasons behind the bench as head coach.

The Panthers rested Jonathan Huberdeau and Brandon Montour for the regular-season finale due to minor injuries, but it seems as though they will be ready for Game 1.

Patric Hornqvist, who has been a full participant at practice, is also trending to being available after he missed the last seven games of the regular season with an upper-body injury.

Sam Bennett was also banged up down the stretch, but he is expected to be ready for the playoff opener as well.

However, Aaron Ekblad won’t be available. He suffered a broken leg on March 28 and he was projected to be sidelined for at least 12 weeks.

In addition to Stamkos and Kucherov, Tampa Bay also had Palat, Ryan McDonagh and Victor Hedman miss games down the stretch, but it looks like they will all be ready for Game 1.

The status of Barclay Goodrow is uncertain, though, after he went down with an upper-body injury just before the end of the regular season. He is out indefinitely and there is currently no timetable for his return.

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