For as long as they've been in North Carolina, the Carolina Hurricanes had not qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three consecutive seasons until this year.
Their ascent to a perennial contender began in 2018-19, when they surged up the standings in the second half of the season to break a decade-long playoff drought. The Canes then re-captured the hearts and minds of a yearning fanbase in a magical run to the Eastern Conference Final. That was only the beginning.
Though they bowed out in the First Round after sweeping their way through the Stanley Cup Qualifiers in the Toronto bubble, the Canes took another step in the 2020 postseason. Still, it was only a step.
The 2020-21 regular season, in all its uniqueness and with all of its challenges, was about the Canes establishing themselves as an elite team in the National Hockey League. They did just that, finishing atop the Central Division to claim their first division title since 2005-06.
The Canes worked night in and night out, winning 36 of 56 games and failing to earn a point in just 12 outings, to put themselves in prime position to make another run at the Cup. That, after all, is the ultimate goal, and the journey begins in the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a match-up against the Nashville Predators, the first-ever postseason meeting between these two teams.
"The expectation here is to win," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "We've got a long road ahead of us, and it's going to be a huge challenge, but that's the expectation."
(1) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (4) Nashville Predators
Game 1: Monday, May 17 | 8 p.m. | PNC Arena
Game 2: Wednesday, May 19 | 8 p.m. | PNC Arena
Game 3: Friday, May 21 | 7 p.m. | Bridgestone Arena
Game 4: Sunday, May 23 | 2:30 p.m. | Bridgestone Arena
Game 5*: Tuesday, May 25 | TBA | PNC Arena
Game 6*: Thursday, May 27 | TBA | Bridgestone Arena
Game 7*: Saturday, May 29 | TBA | PNC Arena
2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
By the Numbers
2020-21 Regular Season Stats
|36-12-8 ||Record ||31-23-2 |
|80 ||Points ||64 |
|3.13 ||Goals per game ||2.70 |
|2.39 ||Goals against per game ||2.75 |
|25.6% ||Power Play ||17.6% |
|85.2% ||Penalty Kill ||75.4% |
|32.0 ||Shots for per game ||30.0 |
|28.2 ||Shots against per game ||31.3 |
|53.9% ||Faceoffs ||51.7% |
|CAROLINA || ||NASHVILLE |
Video: Top plays from Carolina vs. Nashville matchup
Carolina leading scorer: Sebastian Aho, 57 points (24g, 33a) in 56 games
Nashville leading scorer: Roman Josi, 33 points (8g, 25a) in 48 games
Revisiting the Season Series
The Canes dominated the first six games of the season series, going 6-0-0 and outscoring the Predators 23-9 in those games. By the time the puck dropped in the final two games of the regular season in Nashville, the Canes had already clinched the Central Division title, while the Predators were fighting to secure their seventh consecutive playoff berth.
"We played them 4 or 5 times without their full lineup. You could tell it was a big difference," Brind'Amour said. "When they got healthy, they kind of got their game going. I think they were a little bit all over the place, maybe because of the injuries. All of a sudden, the last month or month and a half, that was the team everyone expected to see from the get-go."
Jan. 18: Hurricanes 4, Predators 2
In what was the Canes' last game before being shut down for a week due to a COVID-19 outbreak, they rebounded from a season-opening split in Detroit to double up the Predators, 4-2. Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho and Vincent Trocheck each recorded a goal and an assist, while James Reimer stopped 31 pucks in his first start of the season.
Video: Hurricanes ride big 3rd to 4-2 win against Predators
"You just get in there, try to play your game and trust it. Know that you're going to make mistakes and that's all right," Reimer said. "Just stay with it, trust it and hopefully it's a good outcome."
March 2: Hurricanes 4, Predators 2
The Canes fended off a two-goal push in the third period from the Predators to come away with a 4-2 win. Steven Lorentz tallied his first career goal in the NHL, which held up as the game-winner, while Aho added two goals, including an empty-netter late in regulation.
Video: Aho, Lorentz propel Hurricanes to victory
"It makes me so happy to know that those guys are all excited for me to. The team camaraderie here is so nice," Lorentz said. "Everyone is one big family. It's nice to a be a part of, and it's nice to contribute."
March 9: Hurricanes 3, Predators 2 (OT)
Jordan Staal netted two goals, including the overtime winner, to lead the Canes to their sixth straight win in a 3-2 final against Nashville. Special teams was critical in the victory, as the Canes' power play finished 2-for-6, while the penalty kill was a spotless 5-for-5.
Video: Staal scores twice, including OT winner in 3-2 win
"Jordan Staal won us the game," Brind'Amour said. "He was a monster in every aspect. Our penalty kill was great. Who's part of that? Our power play came through. Who's part of that? In overtime, who scores the goal?"
March 11: Hurricanes 5, Predators 1
The Canes scored three goals in a span of 2:21 in the first period to establish a commanding 3-0 lead in a game they would win, 5-1. Morgan Geekie, Brock McGinn and Dougie Hamilton struck quickly, while the Canes finished 3-for-3 on the power play to stretch their power-play goal scoring streak to seven games.
Video: Hurricanes top Predators for seventh consecutive win
"We were pretty opportunistic tonight, especially early," said Reimer, who finished with 32 saves on 33 shots. "Didn't really give them a sniff. That's what you want to do."
April 15: Hurricanes 4, Predators 1
Trocheck and Svechnikov each recorded two points in the Canes' 4-1 win over Nashville. Warren Foegele got the Canes on the board late in the first period, Svechnikov doubled his team's lead just 14 seconds into the second and from there, the team rolled.
Video: Svechnikov, Hurricanes roll past Predators, 4-1
"Not a great first period. Petr made some good saves, and it was nice to get a lead," head coach Rod Brind'Amour assessed. "We had a real good second. That looked more like how we want to play. That was the difference in the game."
April 17: Hurricanes 3, Predators 1
The Canes capped a season-long, eight-game homestand with a 3-1 win against the Predators, and it began with probably the most dominating 20 minutes of the season. The Canes recorded 24 shots on goal in the first period along and led 28-5 in scoring chances and 17-2 in high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick. Then, in his second game with his new team, Jani Hakanpaa scored on a wrist shot from the point in the third period that ended up being the difference in the game.
Video: Hakanpaa lifts Hurricanes past Predators, 3-1
"It's tough to read those. There's traffic in front of you, and he gets it off quick," Alex Nedeljkovic, who made 27 saves on 28 shots in his 10th win of the season, said of Hakanpaa's goal. "Those are hard to pick up. It was a great heads-up play by him, a smart play."
May 8: Predators 3, Hurricanes 1
A night after securing first place in the Central Division, the Canes saw their 13-game point streak come to an end in a 3-1 loss to Nashville. With the win, their first of the season against Carolina, the Preds secured their seventh consecutive postseason berth. Off a backhand dish from Lorentz, Geekie tallied the lone goal for the Canes.
Video: CAR Recap: Geekie scores in 3-1 loss to Predators
"It was a playoff atmosphere out there tonight," Geekie said. "We knew what they were playing for, and we tried to match that. I think we've got another gear."
May 10: Predators 5, Hurricanes 0
Joey Keane made his NHL debut for the Canes, and Pekka Rinne posted a 30-save shutout in what might have been his final regular-season home game with the Predators in a 5-0 final. It marked just the second time all season that the Canes lost consecutive games in regulation, and prior to the game, the Canes had trailed by three or more goals for just 35 seconds all season - the final 35 seconds of regulation after Tampa Bay's empty-net goal in a 3-0 loss on Feb. 24.
Video: CAR Recap: Mrazek Hurricanes shut out by Predators
"We're going to flush it. We played 56 games, and in 55 games, we were in every one," Brind'Amour said. "This is the one game the whole year we weren't in. It's kind of flushed for me."
The Canes Will Advance If …
… they play their game
It's pretty straightforward. The Canes are the better team. They did, after all, have one of their best seasons in franchise history and finished with the third-best record in the entire league. When they're at their best and playing their game, there aren't many - if any - teams in the NHL that can stop them. They're quick. They're aggressive on the forecheck and relentless on the backcheck. They hound pucks. They're talented. They're deep. They're well-coached. What else could you ask for?
If the Canes can get to their game and establish it with gusto right from the drop of the puck in Game 1, they should be able to advance past Nashville.
"Our main goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and whatever we need to do to get there and whatever we need to say to each other - that's our main objective," Jordan Martinook said. "It doesn't matter if you're the underdog or top dog, we've got one thing on our mind."
… they control the special teams game
The Canes had the league's second-best power play (25.6%) and the third-best penalty kill (85.2%) in the regular season. In the season series, the Canes' power play clicked at 34.6% and their penalty kill at 88.9%. Those are staggering numbers and were often the difference in the season series. This playoff series won't be played in its entirety at 5-on-5, so if the Canes can continue to dominate the special teams game against the Preds, they'll be successful in the First Round.
"It's a huge part of the game," Brind'Amour said. "How do you carry [success] over? Keep working on it. Keep talking about it. We've had time to practice it this week, which is nice."
The Predators Will Advance If …
… Juuse Saros takes over
Nashville's best chance to win this First Round series is Juuse Saros. The Predators' netminder finished the season with a 21-11-1 record, a 2.28 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage, all career-best numbers, in 36 appearances. His numbers were even better down the stretch of the season, as the Preds clawed their way up the standings. From Feb. 27 on, Saros was 18-6-1 with a 1.88 goals-against average, a .941 save percentage and three shutouts.
"They've got a powerful lineup with no weaknesses, and when their goalie is playing as well as he is, it just amps up everything they're doing," Brind'Amour said. "It's not great news for us that they've figured it out, but it's going to be a challenge either way."
Though Saros was arguably the Preds' best player down the stretch of the season, his numbers against the Canes aren't as strong - that's not to say they're bad, by any stretch. He finished 1-2-0 with a 2.73 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in four appearances.
"I heard he's been really good down the stretch. He played really good against us that second to last game. Both their goaltenders are great. It's a huge part of their team and all playoff teams. Everyone has good goalies at this point," Hamilton said. "To win games, you need good goaltending. We're going to have to find ways to make it hard for him … and challenge him to hopefully get some by him."
… the Canes run into injury trouble
The concerning news for the Canes this week has been the absence of Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Cedric Paquette at practice. Slavin is one of the best defensemen in the NHL, the Canes leader in average time on ice and a strong candidate for the Lady Byng. Pesce is also one of the league's elite blueliners and recorded 25 points (4g, 21a), second-most in a single season in his career, despite playing in just 55 games. Potentially being down both Slavin and Pesce quickly eats into the Canes' depth on defense. Paquette plays a style of game that the Canes will need up front as intensity and physicality ramps up in the playoffs, though having Martinook and McGinn available certainly helps.
In any case, Brind'Amour is "fairly" hopeful that the Canes will have a healthy complement of players in time for Game 1, but lingering injury troubles for Carolina could be an advantage for the Preds.
The Bottom Line
The Canes were the top team in the Central Division and third-best team in the NHL in the regular season. But that was just the regular season, the first step in a longer journey.
Now, it counts for real.
"We accomplished the one part, which was get to this level where we get the chance to compete for the championship," Brind'Amour said. "Now we've got to ramp it up to go get it."
The Carolina Hurricanes 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs are powered by DieHard. DieHard batteries are available at Advance Auto Parts and participating Carquest locations nationwide.