Welcome to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, unlike any playoffs seen before. This year’s tournament is different than the 2020 tournament, as the realigned divisions, eliminated wild cards and conference structures, and the 56-game pandemic-shortened season produced a uniquely structured tournament. The atmosphere may not be the same as in previous years, but at least some fans will get to experience this year’s tournament in person. Despite all the adversity that the hockey world has faced this season, the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs will surely be a tournament to remember.
This first-round series between the Central Division champion Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators figures to be an intriguing one. The Hurricanes rolled through the year, while the Predators made up for a slow start by playing like a top-five team in the last two months of the regular season. The Canes were the feel-good story of the 2019 playoffs, much like Smashville in the 2017 tournament. Both teams boast a home arena that makes life hell for opposing players. Both teams do a good job at keeping the puck out of their net. But which will advance to face the winner of Florida-Tampa Bay?
#1 Carolina Hurricanes (36-12-8) vs. #4 Nashville Predators (31-23-2)
Recent History: None, this is their first ever playoff meeting.
The Last Time Here: The Predators’ last proper playoff appearance was in 2019 when they were upset in the first round by the Stars, providing proof that the Central Division champion isn’t simply bulletproof in the first round.
Carolina dominated the Rangers in their qualifier round series last year as the only team to sweep the best-of-five series, but they were crushed in the first round, bowing out to Boston for the second straight year. Including the qualifier, Carolina is 11-3 in the playoffs over the last two years against every team not named the Bruins, so the objective is clear for them going forward: stay out of Beantown at all costs.
Season Series: All Carolina. The Canes took six of eight from the Preds, holding the Predators to just 2.125 goals per game. That being said, Nashville did win the regular-season finale between the two teams 5-0, including scoring two goals while short-handed.
Carolina Wins Because: The team is one of the best in hockey, finishing between second and fourth this season (some teams still have a few games left). Granted, that result hasn’t landed any team a Cup since the 2013 Blackhawks, but at least every President’s winner since the last lockout except one, (the 2019 Lightning), has advanced past the first round. It all starts with their top line. Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, and Andrei Svechnikov are a well-oiled machine that is difficult to contain. They were separated most of the year because of a Teravianen concussion (he played just 21 games as a result), but they’re back at full strength for the playoffs.
There’s plenty of quality players behind them, too. Martin Necas had a breakout season, scoring 41 points. Jordan Staal scored at his highest rate since 2011-12 and he is a stout defensive center as well. Vincent Trocheck returned to peak Florida form; he, Aho, and Staal are a deadly 1-2-3 combination down the middle. On the wing, Nino Niederriter delivered a bounce-back year. Jesper Fast fit in nicely after coming over from the Rangers. This Hurricanes team is stacked.
And yet, their biggest strength might be their ability to keep pucks out of the net. Dougie Hamilton scored 42 points and has become one of the league’s best defensemen over the last few years. Jaccob Slavin is criminally underrated, and the duo forms a dynamic top pair (56.99% Corsi, 57.19% xG). Slavin took just one penalty all season and will receive serious consideration for the Lady Byng Trophy as a result. Behind them, Brett Pesce is a solid second-pair presence who balances out Hamilton’s offensive prowess on the right side. He and Brady Skjei (55.11% Corsi, 56.71% xG) worked equally well together. Add in dynamite goaltending from Petr Mrazek, Alex Nedeljokvic, and (occasionally) James Reimer, and it’s hard to find defensive weakness in Raleigh.
Vendetta’s resident Canes fan Adam Krieger summed it up best. They have arguably the best coach in the league in Rod Brind’Amour (still waiting on his extension), and now that the core has been together for a few years, the Hurricanes can beat any opponent. With the deadly combination of unforgiving defense and solid goaltending, Carolina simply needs to get out of its own way and take care of business.
Nashville Wins Because: Because they’ve been in playoff mode for a while. The Preds have been locked in an unofficial playoff series down the stretch of the regular season with the Dallas Stars, fighting tooth and nail for the Central’s last playoff birth. The Preds seemed dead in the water a mere few months ago and were on the verge of selling big pieces at the deadline. Yet Nashville’s record is 20-7-1 with 41 points since March 15th while Carolina has scored only 39 in the same timespan, despite having played an extra game.
The biggest catalyst for Nashville’s run has been goaltending. Juuse Saros initially struggled to take the starter’s reigns from the aging Pekka Rinne earlier in the season. He sputtered out a .898 save percentage through the first month and a half and his struggles were a major reason behind the team’s slow start. But he’s looked like a different goalie since March 1, posting a stellar .927 mark that is tied for third in the NHL in that timespan (min. 10 games). This is his first true taste of being a playoff starter, and he appears ready for the opportunity.
Saros’ goalkeeping has improved, but he has certainly benefited from having one of the best top-fours on defense in the league in front of him. Even though P.K. Subban and Shea Weber left long ago, the Preds still boast two of the best defensive pairs in the game. Reigning Norris winner and captain Roman Josi is the leader of the group; he remains one of the league’s top defenders in all areas of the ice. Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis complement each other perfectly on the second pair, and Ellis’ beard is already in playoff form. Their third pair is weak, but in the playoffs, teams tend to utilize their best players even more than usual. Nashville is well-equipped to do just that.
Nashville’s biggest problem is putting the puck in the back of the net. The Preds are decent at generating shots (14th in NHL in shots on goal per game) and chances (15th in Expected Goals For), but they score just 2.7 goals per game, 21st in the league. It’s even worse on the power-play, where they rank 24th at 17.6%. The team failed to capitalize on power-play in their 2019 playoff appearance, going 0-for-15. A lot has changed since then, of course, but the production hasn’t improved much.
The Predators have a lot of players that were dynamic offensive talents a few years ago, but with the exception of Filip Forsberg (32 points in 39 games), their highest-paid players have disappointed. Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen each make $8 million, but neither even reached a modest .5 points per game rate, and Victor Arvidsson only just finished at that mark. The Preds do have some nice depth, but their star power up front is severely lacking. It wasn’t their strong suit a few years ago, but right now, it’s almost totally absent.
Players to Watch:
CAR: Petr Mrazek – Carolina’s goaltender isn’t a question mark. Mrazek doesn’t have the same name recognition as an Andrei Vasilevskiy type, but his .912 save percentage since coming to Carolina in 2018 is solid. He played only 11 games this year due to injury, but he posted a stellar .934 save percentage and 6.9 goals saved above average (GSAA). Even if he gets injured or falters, the Canes can turn to Alex Nedeljokvic, who should get a little love based on his .932 save percentage in 23 games this year. Their third option, James Reimer, is better than a lot of backups. If the Canes can’t find solid goaltending, it certainly won’t come from a lack of available options.
NSH: Matt Duchene – If Nashville is going to win this series, they’re going to need one of their two $8 million centers to step up. Duchene has been a bust since coming to Smashville, scoring a mediocre 42 points in 66 games last year and just 11 points in 33 games this season. That being said, his production is not indicative of his talent. Duchene proved in the Blue Jackets 2019 playoff run that he can produce in the playoffs, scoring 5 goals and 10 points in 10 games. That’s also the only time in his twelve-year career he has survived the first round. The motivation is there, but the production must follow.
The Pick: Both of these teams have an amazing top four on the back end and their goaltending has been stellar as of late. But Carolina’s top six, especially their first line, sets them apart from the Preds. Carolina is a nightmare at 5-on-5 (53.99% Corsi, 54.17% xG – both are 4th in the NHL) and they have a significant edge in special teams. Nashville is coming in hot, but the Canes are so loaded that I don’t see the Preds tripping them up here. Carolina in 6.
Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I always borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is “stolen”; the predictions themselves are not. In this series, the Predators will call upon Rinne at some point, but will also decide to pull him.
All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5, Score and Venue Adjusted unless otherwise stated and are via Natural Stat Trick