2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs
The Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning have been Stanley Cup contenders all season. But only one can advance past this second round clash. (Scott Audette / NHLI via Getty Images)

2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Preview: Hurricanes vs. Lightning

Round 1 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs is in the books* (*Toronto and Montréal are still playing, but for the most part, it’s in the books). That means it’s time for the Divisional Finals, where the elite eight teams remaining will be whittled down to a final four. At this point, there are no easy opponents. Every team remaining has a legitimate path to the Stanley Cup, a path that needs just twelve more wins to be completed.

In most years, a second-round matchup like the one in the Central Division would be the marquee matchup. The Hurricanes have been Cup contenders all season, narrowly missing out on the President’s Trophy. Their reward for a first-round win? The defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, hungry to become the second repeat champion in the salary cap era. Both of these teams are legit Cup contenders, and you could argue both belong in the league’s four best teams. But in reality, only one of them can actually advance to that stage; the other will be the victim of a tough-luck second-round exit. So, which team will prevail in this high-powered series? Let’s take a look.

#1 Carolina Hurricanes (36-12-8) vs. #3 Tampa Bay Lightning (36-17-3)

Recent History: Nothing to see here, this is the first ever Carolina-Tampa Bay playoff meeting.

The Last Time Here: Carolina pulled off their first-ever sweep in franchise history in their last round two appearances, taking all four games against the New York Islanders. Tampa Bay bested the Boston Bruins last year, winning four straight after dropping Game 1.

Season Series: Thanks to the “power” of the loser point, exactly even. Both teams went 4-3-1 against each other in the regular season, with Carolina holding a minuscule +1 goal differential. Their power-play/penalty kills were also within one percentage point of each other head-to-head, with the Canes holding a 0.7% edge. Yeah, these teams seem pretty evenly matched.

The Road So Far: It took quite the fight, but the Hurricanes ultimately proved my prediction correct by besting the Predators in six games. Nashville took a chunk of flesh out of the Canes, with each of the last four games going to overtime. If not for a lights-out Jusse Saros, it may have been a shorter series, though the Predators certainly gave it their all. Tampa Bay also made me look smart by knocking off the Panthers in six games. The Lightning were technically underdogs in that series, but no one was taking the defending champions lightly. Reintegrating Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos into their lineup went as well as expected; none of Florida’s three goaltenders could contain them or the rest of Tampa’s squad in the series.

Carolina Wins Because: If Goliath can be defeated, so can the defending champions. And the Hurricanes are bringing one helluva slingshot to this series. Nashville pushed them a bit in Round 1, sending each of the last four games of the series past regulation. But even when they were trailing late in the 3rd period of Game 5, it never felt like Carolina was in serious danger of losing the series. Sure enough, the Canes overcame late one-goal deficits in Games 5 and 6, winning both in OT. Sometimes, a little adversity can be a good thing. Though the Hurricanes won’t want to make a habit out of that if they hope to go deep.

Carolina’s rise over the last three seasons has been driven by stellar 5-on-5 play, and these playoffs have been no exception. Rod Brind’Amour’s club finished third and fifth, respectively, in Corsi and Expected Goals in the first round. They ranked second and fourth in those departments in the regular season as well, with their numbers jumping up by about two percent in Round 1. What’s just as scary is Carolina’s special teams; their power-play was a solid 21.1% in Round 1, while their penalty kill put up a stellar 88.5% rate. The latter number ranks second among all playoff teams behind only Toronto as of writing. Simply put, this is a Hurricanes team that is built to excel in every situation.

The Hurricanes’ top-line hardly played together this year thanks to Teuvo Teravainen missing 35 games due to injury. But they were reunited in Round 1 and looked as dominant as ever, posting an otherworldly 70.77% Corsi and 63.1% xG together. Svechnikov and Teravainen only put up one goal each, but Aho is second in the entire playoffs with five goals, including the series-clinching OT winner in Game 6. Jordan Staal and Martin Necas picked up where they left off in the regular season; each scored five points and were heroes in Game 5, with Necas tying the game late, and Staal restoring Carolina’s control in the series with the OT winner. No surprise there.

What was a bit surprising is that Alex Nedeljokvic earned the Game 1 start in goal. Nedeljokvic had an incredible rookie season, finishing fourth in the NHL in goals saved above average despite only playing in 23 games. Considering Petr Mrazek’s also strong numbers (.923 save percentage) and strong track record since arriving in Raleigh in 2018, I expected Rod Brind’Amour to go with the established net minder. Starting Nedeljokvic paid off, however; it’s hard for a .922 save percentage to understate how good a goaltender was, but you could make that argument here. Tampa’s much more potent offense will be a significantly tougher challenge, but Nedeljokvic sure seems up to the task.

Tampa Bay Wins Because: The champs are still the champs. Facing a very good Florida Panthers team that handled the Lightning in the regular season, Tampa Bay largely controlled arguably the first round’s most exciting series. Yes, they allowed eleven goals in the first three games of the series. Not only did the Lightning run and gun their way through Florida’s defense and all three(!) goalies the Panthers threw their way, but the Bolts managed to shut down some of Florida’s biggest stars.

Jonathan Huberdeau did score 10 points, but his underlying numbers (50.61% Corsi, 48.23% xG) were certainly nothing to write home about. And holding Aleksander Barkov to one goal (which came in early in Game 1) is no small feat. I wrote in my Round 1 preview that both of those players would have to go off for the Panthers to advance. Tampa kept them off their A-games, and as a result, won the series fairly convincingly. No Panther managed more than two goals all series; for context, Florida had seven players reach double digits in goals during the regular season. Tampa Bay’s offense gets all the love, but their ability to keep pucks out of their net is also strong. Defense wins championships, and Tampa Bay has the sport’s most recent one for a reason.

But it’s really hard to ignore that offense, man. There was some concern that maybe Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos may not be at 100% heading into the playoffs and could struggle as a result. So much for that; instead, they finished first and tied for second in team scoring during the first round, combining for nineteen points. There’s simply no stopping these two (and Tampa’s offense as a whole). Tampa is second in the playoffs in goals per game (4) and power-play (40%), trailing only Colorado in both categories. Remember, the Lightning put up those marks against a Florida team that finished with 16 more points than St. Louis, Colorado’s first-round opponent.

Granted, Florida did skate with the Bolts quite well at 5-on-5. Tampa Bay was outshot and out-chanced by a fairly decent margin (47.35% Corsi, 48.38% xG). Considering how well they were in both departments during the regular season (7th in both), I’ll chalk it up to a matchup thing with Florida. It helps to have a net-minder like Andrei Vasilevskiy, who put up a stellar .929 save percentage in Round 1. Goaltending was the biggest mismatch in Tampa’s favor during the first round, and despite how good Nedeljokvic has been in 2021, it’s hard to say the Lightning don’t have the advantage between the pipes.

I know I was complementary of Tampa’s defense earlier, but if there’s one area of concern for the Lighting lately, it’s Victor Hedman. The former Norris winner hasn’t looked like himself for the last month or two, and was below breakeven in Corsi and xG in the first round. To be fair, none of Tampa Bay’s defensemen were above water by those metrics in Round 1. But not all of them sported the ugly 42.85% actual goals for percentage Hedman had in Round 1; only one Tampa defender (Mikhail Sergachev) was worse in that department. That’s a number the Lightning need to improve moving forward. The Lighting wouldn’t have won the Cup without him at Conn Smythe form last year; they probably won’t win it this year if Hedman can’t at least get a little bit closer to that form.

Players to Watch:

CAR: D Jaccob Slavin – Everyone has heard the saying you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. But there’s a difference between reading it on paper and seeing it play out in reality. The Canes lost two of the three games that top pair defenseman Jaccob Slavin missed due to injury. Carolina still outshot and out-chanced the Predators in every game of the series, but did so to a much lesser degree in Games 2 and 3, both of which Slavin missed.

When he was in the lineup, Slavin was his typical outstanding self; 60.72% Corsi, 65.58% xG, 83.3% actual goals on-ice at 5-on-5. If you’re not a fancy stats person, Slavin logged an average of 24:25 per game, put up three assists, and took zero penalties, which isn’t a surprise since he took one the entire regular season. Slavin is simply a machine, and the Canes will need him to be firing on all cylinders to shut down the star-studded Lightning.

TB: C Ross Colton – We so often see little-known players come out of nowhere and make a huge difference. Joel Kiviranta’s Game 7 hat-trick in Round 2 against the Avalanche last year is a perfect example. If there’s someone in Tampa Bay’s lineup that could fit that bill, it’s probably Colton. A 2016 4th round pick, Colton put up 9 goals in 30 games despite averaging only 10:34 of ice-time. That’s about a 25-goal pace over a full 82-game season, and Colton added two more in the playoffs. He won’t be anyone’s focal point, but if the Bolts win this series, a timely depth goal from a player like Colton could be a big reason why.

The Pick: This should be a tremendous one. Carolina and Tampa Bay are two of the best teams in hockey. They are possession monsters that play a fast, exciting game to watch, regardless of your rooting interest. Both are incredibly deep teams up front, led by outstanding top lines. Their defenses are mobile and can shut down even the best their opponents can throw at them. And if they can’t, their red-hot goaltenders can. I’m expecting a full-on-war in this series, no holds barred. I know I sort of referred to the Hurricanes as David earlier, but to be clear, they aren’t significant underdogs, if underdogs at all, just because they don’t have a Cup win this decade like Tampa. Both of these teams are legit contenders, no doubt about it.

As a neutral observer, this series should be a treat to watch. Ultimately, when a series is this close, the tiebreaker tends to be experience. Carolina is a tremendous team that does have a deep playoff run in their recent memory. But this is the same Tampa Bay squad that proved to be unstoppable when firing on all cylinders in the bubble eight months ago. They seem to be back in that mode now, and I can’t pick against them in that state. Tampa Bay in 7.

Let’s head out east for another Round 2 preview!

Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I also 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 series winner of this series will be scored by a defenseman. Hedman, Hamilton, Sergachev, Slavin — it could be Jani Hakinpaa or Luke Schenn for all I care, it’s gonna be a defenseman. Book it.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5, Score and Venue Adjusted unless otherwise stated and are via Natural Stat Trick