NHL Central Division First Round Playoff Preview: Nashville Predators versus the Carolina Hurricanes.
Carolina won the Central Division with a 36-12-8 record, with their 80 points being the third-most in the NHL this season. The Hurricanes made a surprise run to the Eastern Conference finals two years ago before getting swept by Boston. They made the playoffs again last summer, making it the first time the franchise qualified for the postseason in consecutive seasons since 2002. But Carolina ran into the Bruins once again, who eliminated them in the first round in the playoff bubble.
General manager Don Waddell made few moves in the offseason, with the most significant addition being the signing forward Jesper Fast from the New York Rangers for depth on the bottom-six. With a young foundation of forwards Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Teuvo Teravainen plus Dougie Hamilton on the blue line, the organization felt the pieces were in place to take the next step to reach a Stanley Cup final. Waddell was aggressive at the trade deadline last season by acquiring underachieving center Vincent Trocheck from Florida and
Under third-year head coach Rod Brind’Amour, the Hurricanes are second in the league in both their power play and their power play kill units. Aho leads the team with 24 goals and 57 points. Hamilton tops the team with 32 assists. Trocheck has re-emerged with one of his best seasons since the Gerard Gallant era in Florida with 17 goals and 26 assists in 47 games. Svechnikov added another 15 goals and 27 assists. Teravainen missed 35 games to an injury, but he got back on the ice for the final eight games in the regular season.
Goaltending was considered a question mark in the offseason, with Brind’Amour relying on the tandem of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer. Those two goaltenders and rookie Alex Nedeljkovic combined for a .935 save percentage at even strength, ranking second-best in the NHL. The Hurricanes lead the league by allowing only 1.78 goals per 60 minutes at even strength.
Waddell made a minor move at the trade deadline this season by adding Jani Hakanpaa from Anaheim for more depth on the blue line.
Nashville was close to being sellers at the trade deadline before they won twelve of fifteen games. The possibility of another playoff run compelled general manager David Poile not to dangle players like defenseman Mattias Ekholm or left wing Mikael Granlund. Instead, Poile added depth on the blue line by acquiring Erik Gudbranson from Ottawa. They enter the postseason with 20 victories in their last 28 games.
The Predators reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2017. A loss in the Western Conference finals the next year was followed up by a first-round exit in 2019. Head coach Peter Laviolette was fired after a 19-15-7 start last season, with Poile bringing in John Hynes, who had been fired by New Jersey earlier that year. The team was eliminated in the play-in qualifier to Arizona after finishing seventh in the Western Conference in the abbreviated regular season.
Nashville still has one of the best defensive pairs in the NHL in reigning Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis. Eckholm anchors an effective second line. With goaltender Juuse Saros, the Predators lead the NHL with a .936 save percentage at even strength. They are third for the season by allowing 1.98 goals per 60 minutes at even strength, and they lead the league over their last 20 games by lowering that number to 1.66 goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five.
Carolina won the first six meetings between these two teams before dropping the last two games to Nashville earlier this month.
BetOnline lists the Hurricanes as a -179 money line favorite with the total set at 5.
Prediction: Carolina Hurricanes win 4 games to 1