RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes won’t need a crash film session to remind them about the systems and tendencies of their opponent in the first round of the NHL Playoffs.
After ending their season with two games in Nashville, the Central Division champion Hurricanes will host the fourth-place Predators in Games 1 and 2 of their seven-game series (dates and times to be determined).
The Hurricanes finished the truncated 56-game regular season with a 36-12-8 record, good for 80 points, first place in Central and home-ice advantage in at least the first two rounds of the postseason.
The Predators (31-23-2, 64 points) were 13-17-1 after a shutout loss in Florida on March 20 and looked like they were on their way to being a deadline seller and rebuilding. Then they reeled off six straight wins as part of an 18-6-1 record over the final 25 games of the season to hold off 2019-20 Stanley Cup finalist Dallas and earn a date with Carolina in the first round.
The winner of the series will face the team that advances from the Battle of Florida matchup between the Central Division’s other two qualifiers, the Panthers and the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning.
Nashville was winless in its first six games against Carolina this season, but the Predators clinched their playoff berth with a 3-1 win over the Hurricanes on Saturday and followed that with a 5-0 win Monday in a game in which both teams rested many of their regulars.
Here is a breakdown ahead of the first playoff matchup between the usual cross-conference foes.
The Predators get most of their front-line scoring from players 26 and older, but it’s youngsters Eeli Tolvanen (11 goals), Luke Kunin (six goals in his last nine games) and Tanner Jeannot (five goals in 15 games) that will need to produce if Nashville is to have a chance.
On the whole, the Preds have a balanced attack — no forward has more than 13 goals and Filip Forsberg’s 32 points leads the way — that includes hulking Ryan Johansen, opportunistic Calle Jarnkrok, shifty Mikael Granlund, streaky Viktor Arvidsson and familiar Erik Haula.
Carolina counters with six forwards who have more points than Forsberg, led by Sebastian Aho’s 57. The Hurricanes also have back Teuvo Teravainen, who played just 21 games this season due to a concussion.
It will be a matchup of two of the best defenses in hockey. Roman Josi, the captain and last year’s Norris Trophy winner, leads the team in every which way, but he’s not alone on the Preds’ blue line. Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis round out a top three as good as any, and Nashville has some physical options in Ben Harpur and Erik Gudbranson.
If healthy, Carolina’s defense is even better. Dougie Hamilton is among the league leaders in scoring from the back end, while Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei have made a formidable shutdown pair. The question mark is Jaccob Slavin, who left Saturday’s game against the Predators and did not play Monday. If he’s unable to play, it will drastically change the outlook of the series.
In name recognition, the Predators have an edge with Juuse Saros — a potential Vezina Trophy finalist with a 2.28 goals-against average and .927 save percentage — and the aging but legendary Pekka Rinne.
On paper, however, it’s Carolina’s two top goalies who have been elite.
Alex Nedeljkovic leads the league in goals-against average (1.90) and save percentage (.932), while Petr Mrazek’s numbers are nearly as good (2.06, .923) despite him being limited to 12 games this season due to injury.
Entering Tuesday night’s games, the Hurricanes ranked second in the NHL on the power play (25.6%) and third on the penalty kill (85.2%). Comparatively, Nashville’s power play has converted at a 17.6& rate (24th) and the penalty kill is third-worst in the league at 75.4%. Enough said.
Edge: Hurricanes, by a lot
The Predators have a lot of players who like to get under their opponents’ skin, and that can make a difference in a long playoff series. But the Hurricanes have added more sandpaper this season with the additions of Cedric Paquette and Jani Hakanpaa, and Jordan Martinook had seven hits Monday in his first game back from injury.
Carolina also has a frontrunner for coach of the year in Rod Brind’Amour, while Nashville’s John Hynes has made the playoffs just twice in seven seasons behind an NHL bench, compiling a 2-7 postseason record.
Nashville has had a good second half of the season, but let’s not overlook the obvious: The Predators won just a combined seven games this year against the Central Division’s three other playoff teams, and a pair of them were against Carolina in the last two games when the Hurricanes were already in rest-and-prepare mode.
The Hurricanes are just too good for the Predators, and this one should mercifully be over quickly.
Prediction: Hurricanes in 5