Which weather phenomenon is better... Lightning or Hurricanes? That’s the question will be answered in Round Two of the NHL Playoffs as the Tampa Bay Lightning will take on the Carolina Hurricanes. The Lightning faced the Florida Panthers and the Hurricanes faced the Nashville Predators in the first round and both proved Weather > Cats.
Ok, time to get serious. That’s also my message to the Lightning. The Lightning played fairly mediocre hockey for most of the series against the Panthers. The team didn’t hold their own when it came to possession at 5v5 throughout the six games. The team got by on superior shooting talent, a strong power play performance, and leaky Panthers goaltending. If the Panthers had started Spencer Knight from Game One, it’s very possible that the series could have gone the other way for the Lightning.
It felt like they finally got back to playing the way we know they can in Game Six. Maybe it was the return of Barclay Goodrow, but I doubt that. More likely it was the reality of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos fully getting their legs under them and all of the rust knocked off. Certainly it was also Andrei Vasilevskiy being a stonewall in net. If they play the way they did in the first five games of that series against the Hurricanes, this could be a short one.
As far as the Panthers have come in rebuilding their team, they still only have a few players that are truly elite or at least approaching that level of play, and none of them were on the blue line. The Hurricanes though... shooooo weeeee, there’s some talent there all over the roster.
Andrei Svechnikov - Sebastian Aho - Teuvo Teravainen
Nino Niederreiter - Vincent Trochek - Martin Necas
Warren Foegele - Jordan Staal - Jesper Fast
Jordan Martinook - Steven Lorentz - Brock McGinn
Sebastian Aho is their most dangerous forward leading the Panthers with 24 goals and 57 points. His linemates Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen are no slouches either and provide more speed and skill on a line that is relatively young and very talented. The second line isn’t a line to sneeze at either, centered by Vincent Trocheck, the Canes’ second leading scorer on the season. He’s flanked by veteran Nino Niederreiter and youngster Martin Necas. The bottom six is a little bit weaker looking, with veteran Jordan Staal centering the third line and not looking like the same player he was previously in his career, but still a strong performer with a lot of experience.
Jaccob Slavin - Dougie Hamilton
Brady Skjei - Brett Pesce
Jake Bean - Jani Hakanpaa
The blue line though... that’s a fairly spicy group. The top pairing of Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton are an offensive force to be reckoned with. They’re not elite defensively, but they aren’t a complete liability either. The second pair of Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei isn’t too different from the Lightning’s pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak. Pesce brings the offense and defense to the pair, Skjei brings some defense. Between these four defensemen, the Canes will have two pairs that they won’t be afraid to bring against the Lightning’s top line. Their third pairing is a bit of a liability though and when the Lightning are at home, they should be targeting that pair with the Point line whenever they can to take advantage of them.
Alex Nedeljkovic - Petr Mrazek
Alex Nedeljkovic has been a revelation for the Hurricanes. Nedeljkovic was placed on waivers before the season and nobody claimed him. Nedeljkovic had only played five games in the NHL previously with a 2-2-1 record. This season, he posted a 1.90 GAA and .932 SV% in 23 games with a 15-5-3 record. So far in the playoffs, he’s played just average in net saving 0.9 goals above expected. This is in contrast to Vasilevskiy saving 3.91 goals above expected in 70 less minutes of ice time.
Carolina had a strong regular season on special teams with a 25.6% on the power play and 85.2% on the penalty kill. The Lightning posted a 22.2% on the power play and 84.2% on the penalty kill. The Lightning feasted on the Panthers penalty kill, but it’s going to be a tougher ask for them to do so against the Hurricanes. The Lightning’s power play is better now with the return of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov making this a pretty even match up on both sides.
Storylines Going Into the Series
How Physical will this series be?
The Lightning definitely have some snarl in their group to go with the skill. Things got a bit ugly at times in the first series. The Lightning and Panthers were both able to settle that down a bit towards the end of the series, but ended up with the most minors in the first round. However, Carolina and Nashville were third and fourth right behind them in minors taken with Carolina taking six more penalties than Nashville during the series.
Will either team try to set a physical tone for the series in Game One? Or will we get a more skill based focused?
Can Anthony Cirelli turn things around?
Let’s face it. Cirelli has been struggling since going into the bubble last year. He is reportedly dealing with an injury he suffered mid-season, but that doesn’t explain why he struggled last year in the playoffs. Game Six was the first time in a while where I looked at Cirelli play and went “Hey, he’s looking pretty good out there.”
The Lightning really need Cirelli, along with Alex Killorn and Stamkos, to be able to help shut down the opponents. If they can’t show that they can control the puck possession game, then Carolina’s top two lines are going to have an opportunity to feast against them, especially during games in Carolina.
Can Hedman continue to be effective while playing through his injury?
The Florida Panthers had a good amount of speed in their line up and really liked to push the play in transition. There were more than a few times where the Panthers were able to take advantage of him being less mobile than normal. Despite all of that, Victor Hedman still put up some of the best possession numbers among the defensemen in the first round, but also got bit by some bad luck offensively that makes his Goals For Percentage look worse than his play suggests it should look.
The Hurricanes also have plenty of speed and a good transition game. They’ll find themselves in spots where they can try and exploit Hedman. For Hedman, that may mean doing a little less in the offensive zone. Taking less risks. Backing up a little earlier than he might otherwise do.
A while back, when he was asked if his poor play was because of an injury or if it was mental. At the time, he said it was a mental thing. Now we’ve learned that he is playing through an injury that will require surgery after the season. So I don’t think he was necessarily lying when he said it was mental. He just didn’t tell us the whole truth. It seems like that mental part was trying to adjust to playing within the limitation set by that injury on him.
This is going to be a tough series. There’s no doubt about it. Lightning seem to have a slight edge at forward and a definite edge in net. The blue line has some potential to be a liability for the Lightning that Carolina can exploit. The Lightning will need Andrei Vasilevskiy to continue to play at his peak performance level and get more offensive contributions from up and down the line up, especially if Point and Kucherov have any slow down in their offensive production.
Most importantly, the Lightning need to play within their system. They know it’s a winning formula. They know how to execute it. Now’s the time to lock it in and remember, as Jon Cooper always says...
Process Over Results