Second Round Preview: Central Division

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Our second round previews of the Stanley Cup Playoffs continue in the Central Division with the Carolina Hurricanes matching up against the 2020 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The series begins on Sunday at 5:00 PM ET on NBCSN. Feel free to check out the East Division preview for Round 2 of the postseason if you haven’t already done so.

(1) CAROLINA HURRICANES VERSUS (3) TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

This is the series that most pundits predicted we would see when the new-look divisions were formed and the playoff format was announced. With all due respect to the Florida Panthers, who earned the second seed going into the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Carolina and Tampa Bay were viewed as the top-two teams in the Central and it sets up what should be a very competitive series between two of the best teams in the league.

Carolina dispatched the Nashville Predators in six games in the opening round of the postseason. It appeared as though the top-seeded Hurricanes would walk all over the Predators early in the series when they outscored them by an 8-2 margin in the first two contests. However, the teams played four consecutive matches that went beyond regulation time afterward with Nashville winning two straight matches in double overtime and then the Hurricanes earning the series win with two overtime victories in a row.

Tampa Bay appeared to be in control for the majority of their first round series against their in-state rivals despite some chaotic games. The Lightning defeated the Florida Panthers in six games to advance to Round 2. The Panthers tried three different goaltenders in the series, but in the end none of them were able to slow down the Lightning.

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That sets up an intriguing matchup to see which team comes out of the Central Division, as the Lightning and Hurricanes have similar roster construction and styles. Both teams like to push the pace and have plenty of talent up and down the lineup to provide offense. Carolina and Tampa Bay also benefit from deep defense corps led by a workhorse who can change the game at either end of the ice. The Lightning have Victor Hedman to fill that role, while the Hurricanes have Dougie Hamilton. They also both have superb goaltending.

Tampa Bay had 4.00 goals for per game played in the opening round. As expected, Nikita Kucherov made an immediate impact despite missing the entire 2020-21 regular season following hip surgery. He racked up three goals and 11 points in six outings, while showing no signs of rust. Steven Stamkos also returned in fine form after sitting out the end of the year with a lower-body injury. He generated three goals and eight points in six appearances. Alex Killorn produced eight points in Round 1 as well, while tying Brayden Point for the team lead with four goals. Point had six points in the series, while Hedman contributed eight assists. Erik Cernak, Ryan McDonagh and Anthony Cirelli chipped in four points each.

Carolina posted 3.67 goals for per game played to begin the postseason. Sebastian Aho topped the team with five goals and seven points. Jordan Staal stepped up in a big way, while ranking second on the team with four goals and he tied for second on the Hurricanes with Martin Necas with five points in the first round of the playoffs. Hamilton, Brett Pesce and Brock McGinn had four points apiece, while McGinn was third on Carolina with three goals. The Hurricanes also have Vincent Trocheck, Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Niederreiter for additional offense even though they all struggled to produce in the opening round.

Andrei Vasilevskiy and Alex Nedeljkovic were superb between the pipes in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They allowed just 16 goals against apiece in their respective matchups. Vasilevskiy had a 2.64 goals-against average and .929 save percentage, while Nedeljkovic posted a 2.22 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. Vasilevskiy is a big-game netminder who has excelled in the postseason before, especially last year, which gives him a slight edge. Still, Nedeljkovic has shown plenty of poise in the crease during his first NHL season and his first appearance in the playoffs. It was a bit of a surprise to see him become the goaltender of choice going into the postseason, but he was certainly deserving of the opportunity. He has rewarded that faith to this point and certainly has the trust of the team after winning a series and making plenty of big saves along the way.

These teams match up very well against one another and the season series was close, but this Tampa Bay team is very different with Kucherov back in the fold. His return has provided Point with a boost. It has also helped Cirelli and Killorn bounce back alongside Stamkos on the second line. Nedeljkovic played well against the Lightning during the regular season and he will have to be even better with the team back at full strength. The Hurricanes also need more of their top forwards to produce than they did in the opening round. Tampa Bay had some health question marks going into the playoffs, but they look more dangerous now than they did last year in the bubble following a fast-paced and physical series versus Florida. Carolina is a better team at defending than the Panthers, but trying to contain the Lightning is a difficult task.

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Players to Watch

Teuvo Teravainen - Teravainen didn’t get to play in the regular-season series against Tampa Bay after being limited to 21 appearances due COVID protocol and a concussion problem. When he is the lineup, Teravainen is strong defensively and he produces offensively. Still, he will have to be better than he was in Round 1. He picked up just one goal and one assist in six matches versus Nashville. Teravainen didn’t light the lamp after Game 1 and he didn’t have a point in the final three games of the series.

Andrei Svechnikov - Svechnikov and Teravainen play on the top line with Aho, but Aho was the only one who had a productive first round series. Svechnikov scored an empty-netter and added two assists in six outings versus Nashville. He was excellent in the playoffs last year, but the Hurricanes need much more from him in Round 2. He compiled 21 shots on goal in the first four games of the series, but only had two in the final two contests.

Barclay Goodrow - Goodrow returned to the lineup in Game 6 of the first round against Florida. He missed the final contest of the regular season and the first five playoff games due to an upper-body injury. Goodrow made his presence felt with a game-high five hits and he had three shots. He has meshed nicely on Tampa Bay’s checking line with Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman since his arrival last year. The trio is tasked with shutting down the top players on the opposition, while chipping in offensively. They thrived in that role last year during the playoffs and Aho’s line should see plenty of them in this series.

Ondrej Palat - Palat had a great regular season and he was excellent in the playoffs last year, but he didn’t leave much of a mark in Round 1 against Florida. He had one goal and one assist in Game 2, but only had one goal in his other five appearance. Losing his spot on the top power-play unit certainly hurts, but he still plays with Kucherov and Point in even-strength situations.

Additional Series Notes

Tampa Bay’s power play clicked at a 40.0% success rate during the first round of the playoffs, while scoring a league-leading eight times on 20 opportunities. Kucherov made a dangerous top unit even more effective with three goals and seven points on the man advantage in Round 1. Hedman accounted for seven helpers on the power play.

The Hurricanes had an edge on the power play during the regular season, while enjoying a 25.6% success rate and 42 goals compared to Tampa Bay’s 22.2% efficiency and 40 goals, but slipped to 21.1% in the opening round of the playoffs. Carolina scored four times on the man advantage over 19 chances. Hamilton and Aho tied for the team lead with three points apiece and Aho led the Hurricanes with two goals.

Necas led the Hurricanes with eight points (three goals, five assists) in eight games versus Tampa Bay during the regular season. Killorn (two goals, three assists) and Hedman (one goal, four assists) co-led the Lightning with five points apiece against Carolina during the 2020-21 campaign.

This will be the first time that Carolina and Tampa Bay will face off in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Lightning have advanced to the second round of the postseason for the fifth time in the past seven years.

Tampa Bay has made it to the conference final in four of the past six seasons, while Carolina advanced to the conference final in 2009 and 2019 following the team’s run to a Stanley Cup championship back in 2006.

Carolina hoped to get Cedric Paquette back from a lower-body injury in the opening round, but that didn’t happen. The former Lightning forward will hope to play at some point in Round 2, but a return date is unclear. Jaccob Slavin has been hampered by a lower-body issue, but he played in three of the team’s six playoff games, including the last two.

Getting Goodrow back gave the Lightning a full lineup. There were injury scares to Kucherov and Mikhail Sergachev in Round 1, but they didn’t miss any playing time.