Jaccob Slavin is hoping to pick up where he left off when the Carolina Hurricanes visit the Nashville Predators in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup First Round at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS, SN360, BSSO).
The defenseman played a game-high 26:08, assisted on the game-tying goal by Martin Necas and had a part in Jordan Staal‘s overtime goal in a 3-2 overtime win in Game 5 on Tuesday. Slavin had missed the previous three games with a lower-body injury.
“We’ve obviously missed that,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Even on the game-winning goal, he’s out there, making a little play that allowed us to get a chance. He’s an elite defender. You take that out of anybody’s lineup, that’s going to be missed, big time.”
Slavin’s return boosted the Hurricanes, who have a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series and can advance to the second round for the first time since making the Eastern Conference Final in 2019.
“It was awesome to get back out there and battle with the guys,” Slavin said after the game. “They’ve been battling this whole series. Watching, I don’t like it, that’s for sure. I get more nervous watching than being in the action. It felt good to get back out there tonight. obviously. We got a huge win. That’s all that matters.”
Carolina’s defensemen were taxed in Slavin’s absence, particularly in double-overtime losses in Game 3 and Game 4. Brady Skjei played 37:59 in Game 3 and an NHL career-high 39:02 in Game 4. Brett Pesce played 39:27 in Game 3 and 40:16 in Game 4.
Pesce is averaging 30:52 of ice time per game, third among defensemen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs behind Darnell Nurse (38:39) and Kris Russell (32:40) of the Edmonton Oilers, who were eliminated by the Winnipeg Jets on Monday. Skjei is sixth (29:21) and Dougie Hamilton is ninth (27:28).
Slavin’s return meant the Hurricanes were able to use their regular pairings (Slavin-Hamilton, Skjei-Pesce, Jake Bean–Jani Hakanpaa) and balanced minutes in Game 5. Pesce played 25:15, Hamilton 24:08 and Skjei 23:17.
It’s a luxury that Nashville has had throughout the series with healthy defensemen. Minutes have remained balanced, especially from their top four. Roman Josi leads them, averaging 28:46 of ice time per game, Mattias Ekholm is second (27:03), Ryan Ellis is third (26:34) and Alexandre Carrier is fourth (25:20).
“We’ve made small changes throughout the series, but the players in the lineup, we trust them, and we can play them,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “You’re not overtaxing certain guys and I think that’s been a big strong point of our team the second half of the season and into the playoffs.”
The Hurricanes have also relied on inexperienced defensemen, including Bean and Maxime Lajoie, who each made his NHL playoff debut in this series. Bean played 27:03 in Game 3 before playing 7:54 in Game 4; Lajoie played 16:54 in Game 3 and 18:02 in Game 4.
“The fact we were throwing rookies in there that, to me, are young guys who really haven’t had any playoff experience, and they hung in there. You have to give them credit. I do,” Brind’Amour said. “They did a great job for us. They gave us a chance to win both games. So, give them a lot of credit, both ‘Beaner’ and Lajoie coming in. Those are guys, these are big moments for them.”
So far, the taxing minutes haven’t bothered the Hurricanes.
“I’m feeling fine,” Skjei said. “I’ve been sleeping great, doing a good job with the trainers recovering, I think all the guys have. We feel good.”