Category 5: Hurricanes, Panthers start battle for Eastern Conference title

The series starts Thursday with Game 1 at PNC Arena

Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk will be a focal point of the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals. (Nick Wass / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — The Hurricanes and Panthers will begin their Eastern Conference finals series with Thursday’s Game 1 at 8 p.m. at PNC Arena.

Carolina won two of three meetings with Florida during the regular season and are 13-3-4 against the Panthers since Rod Brind’Amour took over as coach in 2018. Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho has a team-best eight goals and 23 points in those 20 games, while Florida’s Aleksander Barkov has nine goals and 19 points in 19 of those games.

Aho has more regular season assists (17), points (27), PIMs (18), shorthanded goals (4) and game-winning goals (4) against the Panthers than any other team in 26 career games.

1. It looks like Teuvo Teravainen is ready to go for the series. Teravainen broke his thumb in Game 2 of the Hurricanes’ first round series against the Islanders on a Jean-Gabriel Pageau slash.

Teravainen skated opposite Martin Necas on captain Jordan Staal’s line at Wednesday’s practice, with Jack Drury sliding down to the fourth line.

“Hopefully he’s going to play,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Wednesday. “I haven’t even talked to him since he got off the ice. Following morning skate we’ll make a determination after that, but he looked good.”

Morning skate update: Teravainen appears to be in.

2. When the Panthers made MacKenzie Weegar part of the package they sent to Calgary for Matthew Tkachuk, many wondered if Florida’s defense was deep enough to replace the 23½ minutes Weegar averaged.

Enter Brandon Montour. The 29-year-old went from averaging just under 18 minutes last season for Florida to a team-high 24:08 this year. He also nearly doubled his points, going from 37 last season to 73 this year.

“I think this was the year I had a full opportunity from the coaching staff, the management and obviously the players trusting me on the ice,” Montour said. “I think any time you get that opportunity as a player, a professional athlete you want to run with it. … We made some changes in the summer. I felt like my role could increase.”

While Panthers GM Bill Zito has been lauded for having the courage to reshape his team with the Tkachuk move, finding undervalued assets like Montour and Gustav Forsling also goes a long way in building a successful team.

“I don’t know if I’d say more important but certainly they’re significant,” Zito said of the importance of unearthing players who might be under the radar. “And it’s as much a part of the equation that you’re able to allow them, allow players — really anybody — the opportunity to improve, to get better and to achieve.”

The Hurricanes have done that as well with players like Jalen Chatfield, who went from afterthought in Vancouver two seasons ago to third-pairing mainstay this year on a bargain-basement deal.

3. The Panthers had some motivation for the second round thanks to Maple Leafs fans chanting “We want Florida!” after Toronto advanced out of the first round and awaited the winner of the Florida-Boston series.

But Tkachuk might have also provided some ammunition for the Hurricanes in this round with his comments ahead of Florida’s series with the Leafs.

“I guess the prize for knocking off the best team in the league is getting the second-best team in the league now,” Tkachuk said. “Boston did what they did, but Toronto is the one team that was right behind them.”

So I asked Tkachuk Wednesday if he thought he might have slighted the Hurricanes — the NHL’s actual second-best team in the regular season — with his comments and given Carolina some bulletin board material.

“No, then Carolina’s the third best,” he said. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

Tkachuk then went on to sing the praises of the Hurricanes, mentioning how Carolina’s “talented players compete like everybody else, more than everybody else.”

4. The Hurricanes have allowed just three power play goals in 11 postseason games, leading the league with a 90% penalty kill. But the Islanders’ power play struggled all year, and the Devils, while ranked 13th during the regular season, were wildly inconsistent.

The Panthers present a different challenge. They were 10th in the league at 22.8% during the regular season and have been even better in the playoffs at 27.6%.

“Obviously, the best penalty kills just stay out of the box,” Staal said. “It’s a quick game and there’s tough calls and there’s times you take some. The PK’s been good so far in playoffs, and it’s really helped us kind of keep momentum in games.

“I think as a group of PKers we have a big challenge. They’ve got a good power play. They find ways to keep it simple. I think they throw a lot of pucks on the net and just kind of create havoc. … They’re a big challenge and we’re excited for it, and we’ll be ready.”

The Hurricanes’ power play has been about the same as it was during the season — 18.9% in the playoffs compared to 19.8% in the regular season.

Florida’s penalty kill isn’t on the level of either the Devils or Islanders, who both ranked in the top 10 in the league on the PK during the season. The Panthers were 23rd during the regular season (76.0%) and have been even worse in the playoffs — 65.8%.

Playing the Bruins and Leafs in the first two rounds will do that to you, but there is certainly a path for Carolina to win the special teams battle.

5. Before the Devils series, New Jersey coach Lindy Ruff said he didn’t see much of a difference between Brind’Amour the player and Brind’Amour the coach. Hard-working guy on the ice, hard-working coach on the bench.

Panthers coach Paul Maurice had a much closer look at Brind’Amour in both roles during his two tenures on the Hurricanes’ bench, having the current Carolina coach as both a player and an assistant.

“We had a need, and then the question was, ‘Would he want to do it?’” Maurice said of adding Brind’Amour to his staff. “He’s touched all parts of the game as a player. He’s a power play guy, he’s a penalty killer. He’s a defensive forward and an offensive forward at the same time.

“And that was it, and he was interested. But then it caught fire, and then he loved it. And the next thing would be he would put all this time and all his expertise into it, and he would be great at it.”