RALEIGH — Before the Panthers’ second round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida forward Matthew Tkachuk lamented his team’s reward for beating the powerhouse Bruins in the opening round.
“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.”
Somewhere along the way, Tkachuk forgot about the Carolina Hurricanes. Now he will get an up-close look at the actual second-best team in the NHL in the regular season.
The Panthers, the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, were motivated for their series against the Maple Leafs after Toronto fans chanted “We want Florida!” following the team’s first round win over the Lightning, hoping for a matchup with the Panthers instead of the Bruins.
“When the Toronto fans were chanting that, I looked over my wife was like, ‘Careful what you wish for because you’re playing a team that just beat the best team in the NHL,’” Hurricanes center Paul Stastny said in the lead-up to Thursday’s Game 1 of Carolina’s Eastern Conference finals series with Florida at PNC Arena. “I’ve been around long enough, it’s like you don’t want to pick your poison. It doesn’t matter who you play, every team brings different challenges.”
The challenges are plenty for the Hurricanes against the red-hot Panthers. Last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners struggled for much of the season after overhauling their roster around the acquisition of Tkachuk. The Hart Trophy finalist, in his first season in Florida, posted 109 points in his first season in Sunrise, scoring 40 goals and finishing tied for fourth in the NHL in penalty minutes with 123.
Tkachuk has been just as effective in the playoffs, ranking second among players remaining in the postseason with 16 points in 12 games, trailing only Dallas’ Roope Hintz.
The Hurricanes have been disrespected plenty this postseason. They were the trendy pick to be upset in the first round by the Islanders. Then after dispatching New York in six games, many thought the high-octane Devils would have their way with Carolina. That series took just five games.
The Hurricanes aren’t underdogs in the Eastern Conference finals, but Tkachuk certainly gave them some bulletin board material for the teams’ first postseason meeting.
Carolina will need more than just motivation to get by the Panthers — led by two-time Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice — and reach the Stanley Cup finals.
Win the goaltending matchup
Both Frederik Andersen and Sergei Bobrovsky have been labeled as playoff failures for their past postseason performances.
Andersen’s reputation is mostly unjustified. He failed to get the Maple Leafs out of the first round in three straight years, watching Toronto’s fourth straight first round exit from the bench before leaving for Carolina. It turns out that wasn’t an Andersen problem.
He’s 32-23 in the playoffs — including 5-0 this year — with a .917 save percentage that’s better than his .915 regular season mark.
Bobrovsky, meanwhile, has been as hot and cold in the playoffs during his career as he’s been in the regular season. His performance in Columbus’ stunning sweep of the Lightning in 2019’s first round was the highlight of his postseason career until he stymied the Leafs this year in the second round. But he also has four different stretches of losing at least four straight playoff games during his career. He has a .904 postseason save percentage for his career, 11 points lower than the regular season. He’s won seven of nine this year but is 24-31 for his career.
To win the series, the Hurricanes will need Andersen — or Antti Raanta — to at least match Bobrovsky.
Aho vs. Barkov
Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov has taken a back seat to Tkachuk this season, both in the regular season and playoffs. But the 27-year-old center is still one of the most dangerous two-way forwards in hockey.
That said, he’s been on the ice for just six 5-on-5 goals through 12 playoff games, and he’s been on the wrong side of the ledger in possession numbers and expected goals. Barkov is an elite defensive center — his opponents haven’t had much more scoring success than him this postseason — but Florida will have a tough time winning if Barkov doesn’t contribute offensively.
His countryman, Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho, has quietly had another solid postseason. He’s tied for the team lead in goals (5) and points (10), and his underlying numbers — unlike Barkov’s — remain positive. Perhaps most impressively, at 5-on-5 Aho has not allowed a high-danger chance in the playoffs and has been on the ice for nine goals and just three against, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
If Aho outperforms Barkov in the conference finals, the Hurricanes have to like their chances of advancing.
It looks like Teuvo Teravainen will be back for the series after missing nine games following surgery for a broken thumb suffered in Game 2 of Carolina’s first round series with the Islanders.
“I thought for sure I was done,” Teravainen said Monday of his prognosis following the injury, “but the doctors did a pretty good job and it looks like I’m getting back pretty soon, so that’s pretty awesome.”
Teravainen said his thumb — which still looks pretty gruesome — is “fine,” and coach Rod Brind’Amour admitted Monday that even if the Finnish winger is limited offensively, his contributions all around the ice could make a difference.
“You could throw him in for that reason alone,” Brind’Amour said, “but we’ve been pretty good right now with what we’ve got. We haven’t used him in this last series, so guys have stepped up. But if he’s healthy enough to play, he’ll get in there.”