The Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs began on Saturday. Today, we preview the matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes.
LIGHTNING VS. HURRICANES – series livestream link
Game 1: Sun. May 30: Lightning at Hurricanes, 5 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 2: Tues. June 1: Lightning at Hurricanes, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3: Thurs. June 3: Hurricanes at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (USA Network)
Game 4: Sat. June 5: Hurricanes at Lightning, 4 p.m. ET (USA Network)
*Game 5: Tues. June 8: Lightning at Hurricanes TBD
*Game 6: Thurs. June 10: Hurricanes at Lightning TBD
*Game 7: Sat. June 12: Lightning at Hurricanes TBD
1. Defending champion vs. rising upstarts
On paper, the Lightning and Hurricanes look really close — you can easily make an argument for both teams.
But from a sheer reputation and experience standpoint, the Lightning tower over the Hurricanes. Maybe that explains why the Hurricanes tweeted out an amusing but maybe not acting-like-you’ve-been-there tweet after eliminating the Predators:
A banner night in Nashville pic.twitter.com/OjxqDwmLOV
— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) May 28, 2021
Of course, the Lightning are defending Stanley Cup champions, while the Hurricanes won their sole Cup during that wild and woolly 2005-06 season.
It’s foolish to act like the Hurricanes could pass for an unproven team even along the lines of that 2005-06 bunch. They’ve made the playoffs three seasons in a row, won the competitive Central Division title remarkably comfortably, and even made it to the 2019 Eastern Conference Final.
Still, it seems like they’ve stumbled every time they’ve attempted to take that next step from very good to a truly great contender. Just look at those last two series against the Bruins as growing pains, particularly Carolina getting swept in that 2019 Eastern Conference Final.
When you break down the Lightning vs. the Hurricanes by their biggest/best-on-best matchups, you can boil quite a few of those arguments to many believing just a bit more in the more established Bolts. Maybe advancing past the Lightning in the Second Round would finally convince remaining doubters that the Hurricanes are for real?
Plenty having been waiting a while for this breakthrough.
2. Nikita Kucherov is still Nikita Kucherov
Heading into the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it was perfectly reasonable to question whether Kucherov could jump right into action after missing the entire regular season.
Maybe rust is overrated?
Through that six-game series against the Panthers, Kucherov scored three goals and eight assist for 11 points. He absolutely roasted the Cats on the power play, generating seven PPP.
Aside from an injury scare during that series, Kucherov looked every bit the Kucherov who narrowly missed winning a Conn Smythe last year, and easily won the 2018-19 Hart Trophy.
Few teams could even dream of going strength vs. strength vs. the Lightning, yet you don’t need to destroy all logic to imagine the Hurricanes pulling that off. That said, Kucherov tilts the scales, giving the Lightning’s absolute best that nudge over some brilliant Hurricanes players, including a dynamite top line of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrei Svechnikov.
3. Deadly Lightning power play vs. Hurricanes’ ‘power kill’
The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs won’t provide the sort of sample sizes to make sweeping generalizations, especially only as the Second Round begins.
That said, those early playoff numbers capture one of the key battles of this series: the Lightning’s lethal power play (40% success rate this postseason) vs. the Hurricanes’ penalty kill (88.5% in playoffs).
It’s tempting to paint this as hockey’s answer to the irresistible force vs. the immovable object.
Merely picture the Lightning’s power play talent, and you don’t need to tax your imagination to understand why they’re so deadly. Kucherov and Steven Stamkos have carved up penalty kill units for years. Victor Hedman and Brayden Point give the Bolts additional weapons that make things sometime seem unfair.
For all of the Panthers’ strengths, they weren’t nearly as well-equipped to make a top power play unit uncomfortable like the Hurricanes could vs. the Lightning. For one thing, Carolina’s PK is sometimes referred to as a “power kill” because of its ability to create shorthanded chances.
Most importantly, that unit is adept at limiting chances from the most dangerous areas of the ice. Consider this peak at their PK defense, via Hockey Viz:
4. Bigger names on defense, in net aren’t guaranteed to be better
Ask most hockey fans in a do-or-die situation, and they’d probably pick Andrei Vasilevskiy as their goalie in this series, and Victor Hedman if they were drafting defensemen. When we look back at this Lightning-Hurricanes Second Round series, those could easily be sound assumptions.
But the gap might end up being smaller than people realize — and new stars may be truly established on a mainstream level.
Saying that Dougie Hamilton could very well be as good as (or even better than) Victor Hedman might sound like an insult. Instead, it’s meant to underscore how outstanding Hamilton has been. Year by year, Hamilton’s gradually earned more Norris Trophy consideration, but there are some whose opinions of the defensemen feel as ancient as a Renaissance painting.
Sometimes people need to be convinced on the grand scale of the playoffs. That’s fine, just don’t be surprised.
Consider how Hamilton’s game holds up on a side-by-side comparison via Evolving Hockey over multiple seasons:
Perhaps the most surprising development could end up being that Alex Nedeljkovic might be able to more-or-less hang with possible Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy.
While Hamilton’s delivered for years, there’s no denying that Nedeljkovic is largely unproven. Nedeljkovic, 25, only has 29 regular-season and six playoff games under his belt. Vasilevskiy’s been a workhorse whose numbers have maintained under big-time pressure.
But you can’t totally dismiss that Nedeljkovic has done what’s asked of a goalie: simply perform when given the opportunity. He went 15-5-3 with a .932 save percentage during the regular season, and maintained much of that brilliance during the playoffs (.922 save percentage, didn’t waver over repeated overtime challenges).
Again, if it’s one or the other, you’re probably choosing Hedman over Hamilton, and especially Vasilevskiy over Nedeljkovic. In the end, it could end up being close, or even end going Carolina’s way.
5. Prediction: Lightning in 7
Could the Hurricanes cement their true contender status by eliminating the Lightning? They certainly could.
But the Lightning are the defending champions for a reason, and it’s easy to forget that they didn’t have Kucherov until the First Round. Their best are just a slight bit better, and it’s easier to trust Vasilevskiy in net.
Also: the Lightning might be a bit more rested going into this series vs. the Hurricanes. Nashville forced Carolina into OT in four straight playoff games, including two double-OT contests. Tampa Bay went to OT once, and Ryan Lomberg ended that in less than six minutes.
With stars like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Alex Ovechkin failing to make the Second Round, hockey fans don’t always get to see “juggernaut” matchups. Hurricanes – Lightning is the sort of series fans clamor for heading into a season, so savor this.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.