Central Division Playoff Preview

Carolina Hurricanes (#1) VS Nashville Predators (#4)

It’s funny; it feels like just yesterday we were all trying to figure out which teams would be trying to trade for Mattias Ekholm. He certainly looked to be one of the best players rumoured to be available at the deadline. Instead, General Manager David Poile decided to take a gamble and hang onto his defenceman. He wasn’t ready to throw in the towel on the season just yet, and his players proved him right by playing spectacular down the stretch to clinch the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central Division.

The reward? A first-round matchup with the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes ended the season with 80 points, going 36-12-8. They play an excellent style of hockey that sees them control the puck for the majority of the game, and they take a ton of shots on the net, averaging 32 shots a game (5th in the NHL) this season. Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour has a group of players that would die for each other, and that’s an excellent recipe for success.

The Hurricanes can score in bunches, with players like Sebastian Aho, Vincent Trochek, Andrei Svechnikov, Dougie Hamilton, and Martin Necas all averaging over 0.75 points per game. The Predators don’t have the offensive firepower to match that; their highest point producer this season was Roman Josi, with 33 points in 48 games. Now to be fair, Filip Forsberg did have 32 points in 39 games, which is .82 points per game. Still, more is needed from the Predators depth if they want to win this series.

The goaltending matchup will be an interesting one to watch, as both team’s netminders put up great numbers this season. For the Predators, it’s an easy choice to go with Juuse Saros in net as he went 21-11-1 with an incredible .927 save percentage. He is a significant reason why the Predators were able to fight their way into the playoffs the second half of the season.

For the Hurricanes, the choice is a little less clear, but all options look good. Alex Nedeljkovic is only 25 years old and has never before played in an NHL playoff game. However, it’s impossible to ignore the .932 save percentage he had this season. Even with one of the best defensive cores playing in front of him, those numbers speak volumes.

Or maybe they go with the more experienced Petr Mrazek, who also had himself a fantastic regular season with a .923 save percentage. Either way, the Hurricanes have options in the net, while the Predators will look to Saros to help carry them to some victories against the Hurricanes.

The Predators need many things to go right for them to even have a fighting chance in this series, as there is a possibility this is the league’s only first-round sweep. People always talk about how important special teams are in the playoffs, and the Hurricanes are top three in both power play and penalty kill percentage. From top to bottom, the Hurricanes look to be the better team. If the Predators somehow find a way to slip past the Hurricanes and win the series, it would a bracket buster for sure; but don’t put your money on it.

Prediction: Hurricanes in four

Florida Panthers (#2) VS Tampa Bay Lightning (#3)

If their game on May 8th is any indication, this is setting up to be one physical series. This is the first time ever these two Florida-based teams have met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which is crazy to believe.

This matchup looks to be much closer than the Hurricanes and Predators series. Only four points separated these two teams in the regular season, with the Panthers getting the right to have home-ice advantage over the Lightning.

Both teams added at the deadline to help bolster their roster. The Panthers added Brandon Montour and Sam Bennet to help round out their roster. Meanwhile, the Lightning added the top rental defenceman available in David Savard to their already elite defence core.

The Panthers defence will be under a lot of pressure to contain the Lightning’s high-flying offence, and they will have to do so without Aaron Ekblad. Players like Keith Yandle and Mackenzie Weegar will be playing a ton of minutes trying to shut down the Lightning; the question will be, can they do it for an entire series?

The Lightning could be getting a significant addition for the playoffs in Nikita Kucherov, who has missed the entire season due to injury. Same with Steven Stamkos, and those two additions could be the difference in this series. However, they recently lost Barclay Goodrow for an unknown amount of time due to an upper-body injury, and he could be a significant factor if the series is to be one full of fights.

Due to lack of playoff experience on the Panthers, and championship experience on the Lightning, this might be a series where the team lower in the standings is the favourite. This should be a physical series that can spark a bitter rivalry for years to come.

This looks like a series that could go a full seven games, and it could be one of the most physical we see in the first round. The Panthers won’t be an easy out, but the defending champions will be just a bit too much to handle.

Prediction: Lightning in seven

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