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Stanley Cup playoffs preview: How the Central Division stacks up

·9 min read
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Predators (4) vs. Hurricanes (1)

Prior to Juuse Saros’ return from an upper-body injury on March 18, it appeared the season was all but over for the Nashville Predators. The Detroit Red Wings were the only team in the Central Division with fewer points while a number of Nashville’s top players were being floated in trade reports. Saros has been nothing short of a saviour and is largely the reason why the team is in the postseason, with the Preds puckstopper leading all qualified netminders in games played (23), wins (16), and save percentage (.941) since his return, while posting the league's third-best G.A.A. (1.90) over that span.

Finishing first in a Central Division that wasn’t short on top teams, the Carolina Hurricanes enter this postseason with “Stanley Cup or bust” expectations. Two years removed from a trip to the Eastern Conference Final, it’s time to see if head coach Rod Brind’Amour’s crew has what it takes to win a championship. An elite team offensively and defensively, it remains to be seen who will start between the pipes for Carolina. Both Petr Mrazek and Alex Nedeljkovic have played well for the team, with the latter leading the entire NHL with a sterling .932 save percentage.

What have you done for me lately?

Nashville owns the best points percentage (.722) of any team in the Central Division since Saros’ return on March 18. Not loaded offensively, Nashville has impressively endured a number of absences to key forwards like Matt Duchene (22 games), Filip Forsberg (17 games), Eeli Tolvanen (7 games) and most recently, Viktor Arvidsson, who’s missed the last five contests with an upper-body injury. Stepping up has been the unsuspecting trio of Luke Kunin, Mikael Granlund and Calle Jarnkrok, who leads all Preds forwards in points since the team’s mid-March turnaround. One other thing worth noting is that the capacity limit for Bridgestone Arena in Nashville will be bumped up to approximately 70 percent (12,135 people) for the playoffs, which means this place is gonna get even louder when Tim McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It” hits.

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The Canes have allowed the third-fewest goals per-game (2.23) of any team in the league since April 1, thanks in part to the play of their defense. During this time, Jaccob Slavin leads all blueliners in plus-minus with a plus-17 mark while him, Dougie Hamilton and Brady Skjei all rank top-10 in individual Corsi for amongst defensemen, according to Natural Stat Trick. Rounding out the team’s stout top-four on the back-end is Brett Pesce, who is logging nearly 23 minutes per night — good for second on the club.

The Predators will win if ...

Saros continues to stand on his head. While Nashville certainly has a solid defense led by Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, Saros has brought them this far and he will continue to be the driving force of the team. The Predators stand no chance if their lightning rod goaltender doesn’t strike in the postseason.

The Hurricanes will win if …

Their center depth continues to shine. Despite having talented players like Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravainen and Martin Necas on the wing, the real strength of this team lies down the middle of the ice. Sebastian Aho, Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal were the only three centres on the same squad to record 35-plus points each. It seems unlikely that Nashville will be able to keep all three centres and their lines in check for an entire series.

Series Hero

Jordan Staal will be an integral reason why the Hurricanes win, but it may not be for the reasons you think. Sure, Staal is a very capable middle man offensively, evident by his 16 goals and 38 points this season, but he’s extremely valuable at the faceoff dot, too. His 58 percent draw victory rate was fifth best in the NHL this season among players with 300 or more faceoffs taken. Possession matters, especially in the playoffs, and his expertise at the dot will be counted upon in big moments.

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)

In some way, shape, or form, it’s going to be Warren Foegele. All this guy does is come through in clutch moments, even dating back to his junior hockey career. In 2017, Foegele, playing for the Erie Otters, scored an overtime winner in Game 7 of the OHL semi-finals against the London Knights, which vaulted his Otters to an OHL Championship later that spring. Foegele was also named playoff MVP during the run, as he recorded 13 goals and 26 points in 22 contests. In 2019, the winger scored four goals in the NHL quarter-finals to help an upstart Hurricanes team upset the Washington Capitals in seven games. With Justin Williams now retired, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see Foegele take over the newly vacated "Mr. Game 7" moniker.

Prediction: Hurricanes in 7 games.

Lightning (3) vs. Panthers (2)

The major questions surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning as the postseason nears all surround the health of the team's top players. How ready is Nikita Kucherov, who hasn’t played a game all season due to hip surgery? Will Steven Stamkos, who’s been absent for over a month, be able to shake off the effects of his lower-body injury? How bad is the lower-body injury that kept Victor Hedman on the sidelines for the final two games of the year? Even with a stalwart like Andrei Vasilevskiy between the pipes, this team will need significant contributions from its top stars in order to have any success this postseason. We’ll find out very early in this series whether or not the Lightning are ready for a lengthy run.

Jonathan Huberdeau has people believing in the Panthers this season — even heading into a first-round series with the defending champion Lightning. (Getty)
Jonathan Huberdeau has people believing in the Panthers this season — even heading into a first-round series with the defending champion Lightning. (Getty)

For the Florida Panthers, new general manager Bill Zito brought impact players and instant success to Sunrise. Not even at the helm for a calendar year, Zito has added talent like Patric Hornqvist, Sam Bennett, Alex Wennberg, Carter Verhaeghe, Brandon Montour and others that have helped make the Cats one of the best teams in the league this season. Despite a strong regular season, the major storyline around the Panthers remains the team’s lack of recent postseason success. The organization hasn’t won a playoff series since making it to the Stanley Cup final in 1996, and a matchup against the 2020 Stanley Cup champions certainly isn’t the easiest first-round draw.

What have you done for me lately?

The Lightning certainly aren’t barreling into the postseason with an abundance of momentum. Tampa Bay lost four of its six regular season games in May, including a pair of losses against the Panthers to close out the year that combined for a 9-1 scoring differential. A lot of the Bolts’ top players have been struggling during this stretch, as Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Victor Hedman combined for seven points through the six games in May. Cirelli’s struggles date even further back as the 23-year-old has recorded just one point in his last 23 games played and hasn’t scored a goal since March 20. It’s also worth noting that Vasilevskiy has posted just one quality start over his last seven outings. Playing in the second-most games (42) of any netminder in the league this past season, it’s not unfair to wonder if fatigue could be setting in for Tampa's No. 1 tender. Let’s not forget Vasilevskiy just led the squad to a Stanley Cup championship not too long ago as well.

Unlike their Round 1 dancing partner, the Panthers are entering the postseason very hot. Florida closed out the year on a six-game winning streak, the longest such streak of any team in the league. During this stretch, the Cats scored four goals or more in each contest and its centre depth has really shined. Aleksander Barkov, Bennett and Wennberg have combined for 24 points during the last six contests, while superstar winger Jonathan Huberdeau has piled on nine points.

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The Lightning will win if …

Kucherov, Stamkos and Hedman are showing no side effects of their ailments. If all are healthy and playing at the top of their game, this is a team that can certainly make another run at the Stanley Cup.

The Panthers will win if …

Sergei Bobrovsky provides solid play between the pipes. The $10-million man was shaky once again this season, being noticeably outplayed by teammate Chris Driedger. It seems highly unlikely the Panthers bench Bobrovsky to start the series because of the optics. He struggled mightily against Tampa Bay this year, registering an .879 save percentage across five games. He is, however, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and an integral reason why the Columbus Blue Jackets orchestrated an upset series win against the Lightning in 2019. If he’s on his game, he’s a game changer.

Series Hero

MacKenzie Weegar will be asked to shut down the Lightning’s litany of starpower, and I think he’s up to the task. A lot is being made about Tampa Bay’s injury situation, but let's not forget the Panthers lost Aaron Ekblad, who was in the midst of a Norris Trophy-calibre season. Weegar has been thrusted into the position of the team’s number one blueliner and he’s been excellent in the role. He’s had success when defending the top offensive assignment from Tampa Bay, logging an impressive 23:12 of average time on ice and earning a solid plus-four rating across eight games against the Lightning this year. If he continues to perform as he has, the aggressive two-way rearguard will be a thorn in the Lightning’s offensive plans.

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)

I’m going to say Owen Tippett will emerge as the unsung hero in this series. Ever since joining a line with Huberdeau, I’ve really liked his game. In the six contests the two played together to close out the season, he led all Panthers in shots on goal with 19 and tied for second in high-danger chances with seven while recording two goals and six points. Getting some exposure to an elite playmaker like Huberdeau has been great for Tippett. A 2017 first-round pick, Tippett was a gifted goal-scorer in the OHL, registering three-straight 30-plus goal seasons. Unlocking the 22-year-old could really help the Cats finally claw their way out of the first round.

Prediction: Panthers in 5 games.

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