2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs Central Division preview: (4) Predators vs. (1) Hurricanes

Talk about a tale of two different seasons. 

For the Carolina Hurricanes, it was all about starting the season strong and only getting stronger as they continued to move down the stretch. 

For the Nashville Predators, it was more of a roller-coaster journey. After underperformance and injuries plagued the Predators through the first part of the 2021 NHL campaign, they were able to crank it up a notch over the final month+ to sneak their way into the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

While some might call this a lopsided series on the path to a one-sided result, others might call it a test for one team and a potential statement for another. 

The question is simple – who holds the position edge and just how will this series play out? 

Without further ado, here is my preview for the first-round matchup between the Predators and Hurricanes. 

Offense:

Carolina scored 175 goals during the regular season and averaged 3.13 goals per game, which both ranked 11th in the entire league. Nashville, meanwhile, averaged 2.70 goals per game and totaled out to 151 netters, which both ranked 21st. Both teams really found a groove over the final third of the regular season. Dating back to Apr. 1, Carolina remained steady and averaged 3.00 goals per game (14th in the league). Nashville, meanwhile, averaged 3.11 goals per game, which ranked 12th.  

Although Nashville took it up a rung when compared to their usual scoring level, let’s not fool ourselves – Carolina still maintains a significant scoring presence over them. Five Carolina skaters tallied 40 points or more during the regular season (Martin Necas with 41, Dougie Hamilton and Andrei Svechnikov with 42, Vincent Trocheck with 43 and Sebastian Aho with 57). No Nashville skater picked up 40 or more points, as their highest-scoring option was defenseman Roman Josi (33 points). Health is always the million-dollar question, but so is depth. And Carolina has it. 

Edge: Carolina 

Defense:

The knee-jerk reaction would be to give Nashville the edge. This is their bread-and-butter, winning blue-print and down-to-a-tee philosophy that netted them the success they had during their prime playoff runs all those years ago. However, in terms of health and sheer checking capabilities, Carolina might have them beat, at least in the counting number department.

Four Carolina skaters compiled 100 hits or more (Trocheck with 107, Cedric Paquette with 109, Svechnikov with 114 and Jordan Staal with 135), while four other skaters collected 60 or more blocks (Brady Skjei with 62, Hamilton with 64, Brett Pesce with 82 and Jaccob Slavin with 87). 

Does Nashville have the blueprint? Sure, they never lost it, to be honest – but they did lose the durability. Their top blue-liner in Josi only played in 48 games, which led the entire unit. Herein lies the problem. Carolina might have health issues, too, but their depth and youth plays to their advantage. 

Edge: Carolina 

Goaltending:

Here is where it can get interesting. On paper, Carolina has a three-headed net-minding monster in Alex Ndeljkovic, Petr Mrazek and James Reimer. Of the three, Reimer had the worst Goals Against Average (2.66). This is not a typo. All three showed the capability at one point to take the starting gig by storm (no pun intended) and run with it.

On the Nashville side of the pipes, it was a little bit more straightforward. Although Pekka Rinne’s age might have caught up with him this season (his 2.84 GAA in 21 games started was his worst in a full season of action since 2019-20 when he possessed a 3.17 GAA in 35 games started), Juuse Saros stepped it up. In 36 games played this season (35 GS), the 25-year-old maintained a 2.28 GAA and .927 Save Percentage (Sv%). 

The x-factor for both teams will come down to health and experience (or the lack thereof). Can Carolina’s tandem put behind the health concerns that caused them to use three goaltenders? Can Ndeljkovic find it in him to put off the inevitable playoff adrenaline? Meanwhile, can Saros maintain the heavy workload he is likely going to take on should Nashville make a deep run? These are all questions that will need to be answered. On paper, Carolina has the edge, but with the intangibles to consider, this looks to be a coin-flip. 

Edge: Even

Final verdict: 

You gotta give credit to the Predators. There was a time where they were a dead team walking. Whether that was after last season or early during this season, no one really pegged them as a playoff team due to the overwhelming health problem that plagued their significant strength on the defensive side of the puck. They might surprise a couple and scoop away a game, but Carolina had their way against them during the regular season, and they will have their way with them once more during this series. It is nothing personal. Carolina just matches up against their strength extremely well. 

Prediction: Hurricanes in Five

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