Hurricanes take on Lightning, ‘X-factor’ Kucherov in Round 2

The Hurricanes and Lightning split their season series at 4-3-1 and now meet in the second round with a trip to the NHL’s final four on the line. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — What was long seen as two teams on a playoff collision course becomes a reality Sunday when the Hurricanes host the 2020 Stanley Cup champion Lightning in Game 1 of their second-round series to determine which Central Division team will advance to the NHL’s final four.

Both teams moved on to the second round with six-game wins against their first-round opponents — Carolina topped Nashville, while Tampa Bay dispatched Florida. The teams both went 4-3-1 against each other during the regular season with an overall goal differential of just plus-1 for the Hurricanes, 18-17.

Here is a closer look at the second-round matchup, from position groups and special teams to goaltending and intangibles.

Forwards

If the Hurricanes are going to knock off the Lightning, they’ll need more from a group of players who underperformed in the first round. Vincent Trocheck (two goals, one assist for three points), Andrei Svechnikov (1-2-3), Teuvo Teravainen (1-1-2) and Nino Niederreiter (1-0-1) are all capable of producing more.

Carolina will need Sebastian Aho (5-2-7), captain Jordan Staal (4-1-5) and Martin Necas (2-3-5) to continue to play well also. The team’s depth players — particularly Brock McGinn (3-1-4) —were effective against the Predators.

The Lightning have three all-world talents up front in Steven Stamkos (3-5-8), Brayden Point (4-2-6) and Nikita Kucherov (3-8-11), who leads the league in playoff scoring after missing the entire regular season following hip surgery.

“That’s the X-factor there,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said of Kucherov. “He’s not only, if not one of, the best, talented players, certainly close to it, and probably the freshest guy in the league. … It’s a huge weapon for them that they hadn’t had that we’re definitely gonna have to be aware of.”

There’s also a lot of sandpaper in the Lightning’s forward corps. Alex Killorn (4-4-8), Anthony Cirelli (2-2-4), Yanni Gourde (2-1-3), Blake Coleman (1-2-3) and Pat Maroon (1-0-1) all bring intangibles to the lineup and supplement that with the ability to finish plays. And don’t forget Barclay Goodrow, who returned for Game 6 of the Florida series after being out with an upper-body injury and adds another layer to Tampa Bay’s attack.

The Hurricanes could add some grit of their own if Cedric Paquette, a member of last year’s Stanley Cup-winning team in Tampa Bay, is inserted into the lineup. Brind’Amour said Saturday that Paquette, who has been battling an injury of his own, is cleared to play, and with Niederreiter listed as questionable for Game 1 he could see action early.

Edge: Lightning

Defense

The Hurricanes looked like a completely different team with Jaccob Slavin back in the lineup for Games 5 and 6. It also coincided with Dougie Hamilton getting back to his offensive ways.

“He makes everybody around him better,” Brind’Amour said of Slavin.

Slavin’s return allowed the Hurricanes to put their shutdown pairing of Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei back together, while Jani Hakanpaa and Jake Bean have populated the third pairing.

The Lightning’s defense looks like a stock car in need of an alignment. The trouble for their opponents is stock cars turn left almost exclusively, and the left side of Tampa Bay’s defense is capable of cruising around a track at 200 mph.

It’s led by Victor Hedman, the 2018 Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top blueliner. While Hedman had struggled a bit this season — for him anyway — he had eight assists in the six games against the Panthers. Only one, however, came at even strength, with the other seven on the power play. But more on that later.

Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev file in after Hedman on the left side of the Lightning defense, giving them a top-pairing talent on all three groups.

Jan Rutta and Erik Cernak take up two of the spots on the right side, while trade deadline acquisition David Savard — who was victimized all season by Carolina when he was with Columbus — takes up the final slot. Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper will also employ Luke Schenn, another righty, as a seventh defenseman some nights.

The lopsided nature of the Lightning’s defense would seem to present a possible kink in the defending champs’ armor. It won’t, however, change the Hurricanes’ approach to the series.

“We know that they’re elite on the left side,” Brind’Amour said. “They’re not that bad on the right side, either. So to sit there and go, ‘Let’s build a game plan to try to do that,’ that’s going to get away from what you’re doing.”

Edge: Even

Goaltending

Andrei Vasilevskiy is the consensus best goaltender in the world and is the frontrunner to win the Vezina Trophy for the second time. Anything less than a .925 save percentage for him in the series would have to be considered a positive for the Hurricanes. Former Carolina goalie Curtis McElhinney struggling in the backup role this season, so the only way the Hurricanes would see him in net would be because of injury or in mop-up duty.

That said, Alex Nedeljkovic went head-to-head with Nashville’s Juuse Saros — another Vezina candidate this season — in the first round and came out on top, even if the Predators goalie received most of the headlines during the six games. Nedeljkovic will need to be even better against the Lightning, and his performance could be the deciding factor in the series. If he does falter, both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer provide better options than Tampa’s backup.

All that said, it’s hard to not give the nod to Vasilevskiy.

Edge: Lightning

Special Teams

Yes, the Lightning’s power play was dynamic in Round 1, scoring on 8-of-20 attempts for a 40% success rate. The addition of Kucherov turned an already dangerous first unit into a deadly one. Tampa Bay was ninth in the league during the regular season (22%) and also finished fourth on the penalty kill (84.2%). But the PK was just 72.7% against Florida, and the Panthers’ penalty kill was the definition of average this season even before Aaron Ekblad was injured.

Carolina was second and third on the power play and penalty kill, respectively, in the regular season. The power play struggled down the stretch and in the first round, but the Hurricanes still managed to convert on 21.1% of their chances against Nashville. More importantly, the penalty kill was nearly impenetrable, allowing just three goals on 26 shorthanded opportunities (88.5%), and two of those goals came when Carolina was down two men. At 5-on-4, the Hurricanes’ penalty killers denied nearly 96% of Nashville’s power plays.

Edge: Even

Intangibles

The Hurricanes earned home-ice advantage, which means last change in four of seven games, if necessary — and a quartet of possible games in front of the PNC Arena crowd that will be expanded to more than 16,000 for Games 1 and 2 and could still climb higher.

The Lightning, however, have a battle-tested team full of Stanley Cup winners and a coach who, like Brind’Amour, is among the most admired in hockey. The benefit of the doubt has to go to the team that has done it all before.

Edge: Lightning

The series

This series has the makings of one of the best matchups imaginable. Whichever team comes out of this Round 2 matchup — and emerges from the equally intriguing Vegas-Colorado series — will be considered a favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

The winner will also reach the league’s semifinals battered and ready for what lies ahead. The Lightning are at their peak — beyond their peak if we take into account their salary cap maneuvering — while the Hurricanes’ window of contending is just opening. Would it be a surprise to see Carolina knock off Tampa Bay? No. But on paper, the Lightning have the advantage.

Brind’Amour said Sunday morning before Game 1 that none of that matters.

“Whether they’re favorite or we’re favorite, we’ve got to go play,” he said. “But we expect to win.”

Prediction: Tons of fun hockey, but Lightning in 7