No. 1 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 3 Tampa Bay Lightning
Hurricanes: 4-2 to win Stanley Cup First Round against No. 4 Nashville Predators; 36-12-8, 80 points in regular season
Lightning: 4-2 to win Stanley Cup First Round against No. 2 Florida Panthers; 36-17-3, 75 points in regular season
Season series: CAR 4-3-1; TBL 4-3-1
Game 1: Sunday (5 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS)
The Hurricanes and Lightning will play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time.
Tampa Bay, which won the Stanley Cup last season, defeated the No. 2 Panthers in the NHL’s first All-Florida playoff series in the first round, winning 4-0 at home in Game 6 on Wednesday to complete its fifth consecutive playoff series win, all in six games or fewer.
Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov led all skaters in the series with 11 points (three goals, eight assists) after missing the entire regular season recovering from hip surgery Dec. 29.
“I’m not impressed anymore, it’s just how good he is,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said of Kucherov. “It’s unbelievable. He works so hard at his craft and what he does. The way he works, his work ethic when he was trying to come back, working on his game and the little things he does, I’m not shocked or surprised by his performance in this series.”
Carolina advanced with back-to-back come-from-behind overtime wins against the Predators, 3-2 in Game 5 and 4-3 in Game 6.
Each time they were down going into the third period before scoring to force overtime. Forward Jordan Staal scored the winner in Game 5 and forward Sebastian Aho scored the series-clinching goal in Game 6.
The Hurricanes have won four of six playoff series since 2019. They defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in the first round in 2019, when they reached the Eastern Conference Final.
“You knew if we got through this [first round] series, whether it was Florida or Tampa, for me, it was going to be the next best team in the League,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Either one, pick ’em. Stanley Cup champs, or I thought Florida played great all year. We’re getting the Stanley Cup champs. We know what we’re up against. We’re going to have to be as good as we can to have a chance against these guys, especially now that they’ve got their full group back. It’s a great challenge for us. We’ll give it all we’ve got.”
The Hurricanes won two of the last three regular-season games against the Lightning (2-0-1), who won three in a row against Carolina from Feb. 22-25.
Hurricanes: Aho is the Hurricanes’ most dangerous player because of his offensive instincts and talent, his speed, defensive acumen and ability to transition quickly out of the defensive zone and into scoring chances. Aho scored seven points (five goals, two assists) in the first round, including two game-winning goals. He led the Hurricanes with 57 points (24 goals, 33 assists) in 56 games during the regular season. Aho already is tied for fourth in Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers history with 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists) in the playoffs despite being tied for 28th in games played (29).
Lightning: Kucherov didn’t look like a player who hadn’t played in almost eight months during the first round. He was dynamic with the puck on his stick, especially on the power play, where he stations himself in the right circle and can beat you with one-timers, passes through the seam to forward Steven Stamkos, or by moving the puck into the slot to forwards Brayden Point or Alex Killorn. Kucherov scored seven points (three goals, four assists) on the power play. Last season he led the NHL with 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists) in 25 playoff games.
Hurricanes: Rookie Alex Nedeljkovic started all six games against the Predators, winning four with a 2.22 GAA and a .922 save percentage. He made 24 saves in Game 6 after making 23 saves in Game 5. Nedeljkovic won the No. 1 job with his play during the regular season, when he was 15-5-3 with three shutouts, a 1.90 GAA and a .932 save percentage in 23 games. Petr Mrazek (6-2-3, 2.06 GAA, .923 save percentage, three shutouts, 12 games) and James Reimer (15-5-2, 2.66 GAA, .906 save percentage, 22 games) did not appear in the first round.
Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy is coming off a 29-save series-clinching shutout in Game 6 against the Panthers. He had a 2.64 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage in six games (16 goals allowed on 226 shots). He was third in voting for the Vezina Trophy last season after winning the award as the best goalie in the NHL in 2018-19, and could be a finalist again this season after he led the League with 31 wins, was third in starts (42), fourth in shutouts (five), and was one of three NHL goalies with at least 30 starts to not be pulled from a game. Vasilevskiy had a .925 save percentage and a 2.21 GAA. His backup is Curtis McElhinney, who was 4-6-2 with a 3.09 GAA and an .875 save percentage in 12 regular-season games.
Numbers to know
Hurricanes: They were 3-0 at home against the Predators in the first round after going 20-3-5 at home during the regular season. The Hurricanes’ three regulation losses at home were the fewest in the NHL. Carolina outscored Nashville 22-16 during the first round, including 9-2 in the third period.
Lightning: They were 8-for-20 on the power play (40.0 percent) against the Panthers, scoring three power play goals in Game 1 (5-4 win), two in Game 3 (6-5 overtime loss), two in Game 4 (6-2 win) and one in Game 6 (4-0 win). Defenseman Victor Hedman had seven assists on the power play. But Tampa Bay’s penalty kill was 72.7 percent, allowing six power-play goals in 22 times shorthanded.
Hurricanes: Staal is Carolina’s version of Killorn, a forward that plays a top-six role at even strength, and on the power play and penalty kill. Staal scored four goals against Nashville in the first round, including the overtime goal in Game 5, after scoring 16 goals in 53 regular-season games. He defends well and is among the best in the NHL at winning face-offs; Staal won 60.5 percent in the first round (75 of 124) and 58.0 percent during the regular season (628 of 1,083). He also leads by example as Carolina’s captain.
Lightning: Killorn is Tampa Bay’s do-everything forward. He scored eight points (four goals, four assists) in the first round, with five points (two goals, three assists) coming at even strength and three points (two goals, one assist) on the power play. He’s played on the second line with Stamkos and Anthony Cirelli at 5-on-5, in the net-front role on the top power-play unit with Kucherov, Stamkos, Point and Hedman, and on the penalty kill, averaging 1:58 of shorthanded time on ice per game against Florida. He’s involved in every aspect of Tampa Bay’s game.
They said it
“We’ve been through a lot even though we’re a young team and it definitely helps. This is the third straight year we’re in the playoffs and we try to learn every year and every game. It doesn’t matter if it’s a win or loss, it’s a process and I think we’re on the right track. They are the defending champs and there’s a reason for that. They’re a really good team, and we have to play our best if we can beat them.” — Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho
“That’s why [the Stanley Cup] is such a special trophy to win, because of the effort and just energy. It’s draining what you go through, the war of attrition, and in the end it is the compete level that gets you there. And you can’t let it go because if you get out-willed in a game, (you’re) probably not going to win.” — Lightning coach Jon Cooper
Will win if …
Hurricanes: They play with the lead as much as possible. The Hurricanes showed their resiliency against the Predators, giving up the first goal in five of the six games and responding to win three of them. They trailed going into the third period in Games 5 and 6 but came away each time with overtime wins. But they can’t bank on the same thing happening against the Lightning, who had won 41 straight regular-season and playoff games when leading after two periods before Game 3 against the Panthers, when they couldn’t hold the two-goal lead they had going into third and lost in overtime. The Lightning were 4-1 when scoring first in the first round after going 22-4-1 during the regular season. For Carolina, playing catchup against Tampa Bay is a recipe for elimination.
Lightning: Vasilevskiy is as effective and elite as he is expected to be. They need their power play to stay as dangerous as it was against the Panthers. At even strength, the Lightning need to defend well in the middle of the ice like they did in Game 6 against Florida. When they defend the middle, they force turnovers and that feeds their speed game going on the attack. When they’re loose defensively in the middle they give up rush chances and/or puck possession. The Lightning can get stuck in their zone and that’s when they become penalty prone.
How they look
Hurricanes projected lineup
Teuvo Teravainen — Sebastian Aho — Brock McGinn
Andrei Svechnikov — Jordan Staal — Warren Foegele
Jordan Martinook — Vincent Trocheck — Martin Necas
Nino Niederreiter — Steven Lorentz — Jesper Fast
Jaccob Slavin — Dougie Hamilton
Brady Skjei — Brett Pesce
Jake Bean — Jani Hakanpaa
Scratched: Morgan Geekie, Jake Gardiner, Maxime Lajoie, Max McCormick, Drew Shore, Ryan Suzuki, Roland McKeown, James Reimer
Injured: Cedric Paquette (lower body)
Lightning projected lineup
Ondrej Palat — Brayden Point — Nikita Kucherov
Alex Killorn — Anthony Cirelli — Steven Stamkos
Yanni Gourde — Barclay Goodrow — Blake Coleman
Pat Maroon — Tyler Johnson — Ross Colton
Victor Hedman — Jan Rutta
Ryan McDonagh — Erik Cernak
Mikhail Sergachev — David Savard
Scratched: Alex Barre-Boulet, Mitchell Stephens, Daniel Walcott, Fredrik Claesson, Cal Foote, Mathieu Joseph, Luke Schenn, Ben Thomas, Christopher Gibson