RALEIGH — Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour is one of the favorites for this season’s Jack Adams Award that goes to the NHL’s coach of the year. The third-year bench boss has shrugged off any mention of his chances of winning the COY, but he didn’t mind being coy about his lineup for Monday’s Game 1 of Carolina’s first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series against the Nashville Predators.
Rookie Alex Nedeljkovic manned the starter’s crease during the morning skate and was first off the ice. Is he the Game 1 starter?
“He might be. … If he starts, it will be because he earned it, for sure,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s been good, I think that’s been pretty clear. So he might be out there tonight.”
What about Jaccob Slavin, Carolina’s top shutdown defender who missed the regular-season finale and didn’t resume skating until Sunday?
“We’re hopeful he will go tonight,” Brind’Amour added.
Predators coach John Hynes was just as vague, holding an optional skate Monday morning and not revealing much about how his team will line up. One thing we do know is Viktor Arvidsson has been cleared to play and will go.
“Viktor is going to play tonight, and we just made the decision, so that’s good,” Hynes said.
Easy enough, right?
“So we’ll have to figure out who is coming out.”
Let the gamesmanship begin.
Heading into Monday night, all four playoff games have been decided by one goal, including three in overtime. So you’ll have to excuse Brind’Amour and his peers if they’re looking for any edge they can find.
One clear advantage is the one Carolina has on paper. While Predators goalie Juuse Saros is a Vezina Trophy candidate this season, the Hurricanes’ goaltending — be it Nedeljkovic or Petr Mrazek — has put up even better numbers.
Nashville’s top scorer is defenseman Roman Josi with 33 points. After that, they have four forwards with between 32 and 25 points, led by Filip Forsberg. Carolina can best that with Dougie Hamilton (42 points) and six forwards with more points than Forsberg’s 32, led by Sebastian Aho’s 57.
Special teams? A big edge to Carolina. Experience? The Hurricanes have three former Cup winners in captain Jordan Staal, Teuvo Teravainen and agitator Cedric Paquette (who will miss Game 1), while the Predators counter with Brad Richardson (2012 with the Kings), who is not expected to play.
Carolina also won six of eight regular-season matchups, not losing in the series until the season’s final two games after having already clinched its playoff berth.
But everything gets thrown out the window now that the NHL’s second season is underway. From ramped-up physicality to curiously malfunctioning whistles, the postseason is a whole new animal.
“Playoff hockey is different,” Staal said following Monday’s morning skate. “It’s definitely a lot more energy and every play gets magnified that much more. It’s a lot more physical and all those things.”
One tangible advantage the Hurricanes will have is a boost from their hometown fans.
PNC Arena will be allowed to have 12,000 in attendance for the game after Gov. Roy Cooper — who will sound the Hurricanes’ warning siren before one of tonight’s periods — relaxed many of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions last week. That’s up from just under 5,000 at the final home game of the season May 6.
“I know the guys are really excited about it,” Staal said. “It’s going to feel great. There’s no better building when the Caniacs are going.”
“We feed off that. Every team does,” added defenseman Brett Pesce, who will be playing in his first playoff game since May 16, 2019, after missing last year’s bubble postseason recovering from shoulder surgery.
It’s just the start of a grind that each of the NHL’s remaining 16 teams hopes will last into July.
“We had a full week to kind of reset,” Pesce said. “Usually you don’t get that much time. So a full week makes it feel like you kind of have a fresh season here.”
“And that’s kind of what we have.”