Under head coach Rod Brind'Amour, the Hurricanes play a fast game and use a relentless forecheck. They put a lot of pucks to the opposition net and tend to dominate possession. They finished the regular season with the second-best power play percentage in the league and, despite ranking among the league leaders in 'most times shorthanded', they were third in penalty kill percentage. Or, as it was referred to, their "power kill". Similar to their forechecking philosophy, the Canes use a very aggressive penalty kill, attempting to take away time and space from the opposition and force mistakes from the power play unit.
At the beginning of the season, their starting goalie was Petr Mrazek, but he suffered a hand injury early on, so while he rehabbed, the Hurricanes went with a goalie rotation of James Reimer and Alex Nedeljkovic. Nedeljkovic, who had won a Calder Cup in 2019 with their AHL affiliate in Charlotte, took advantage of the opportunity. He had a terrific season and has been named a Calder Trophy finalist. Nedeljkovic played so well that he started every game in Carolina's first round series against Nashville, even though Mrazek had returned to the lineup before the end of the regular season.
So the Lightning would be seeing a Carolina team that pushes the pace, can overwhelm the opposition with its forecheck, rolls four lines, excels on special teams, and received excellent goaltending throughout the season. The first round series against Nashville was a grind, however. After winning the first two games at home, the Canes dropped Games Three and Four in Nashville, both in double overtime. They ended up prevailing in Games Five and Six, winning both in overtime, but they had to engineer a third period rally in both of those contests just to force OT.
Heading into the series, there were questions to be answered. How would each club handle the other side's dynamic offense? Would the Canes be able to get to their forecheck game and tilt the ice? Would the Lightning's dangerous power play enjoy success against Carolina's "power kill"? What about the Lightning penalty kill and the Carolina power play?
The Lightning entered the series without the services of an injured David Savard. He eventually came back for Game Four. For the Hurricanes, second line left winger Nino Niederreiter was also hurt. He would miss the first four contests of the series.
In the first period of Game One, the Hurricanes had the better of the play - and the chances. They received two early power play opportunities and Andrei Vasilevskiy made three tough saves on Vincent Trocheck to keep the game scoreless. Later in the period, he came up with what would be his toughest stop of the night - a lunging glove save on Sebastian Aho's chance from the slot.
The Lightning would get three power play chances in Game One and all three came in the second period. Overall, the Hurricanes "power kill" did well against the Lightning's power play. The Canes consistently disrupted plays, cleared pucks down the ice, and broke up the Lightning's attempt to reenter the offensive zone. They held the Lightning to just one power play shot in the game - but that shot went in the net. Alex Killorn got to a puck just inside the offensive blue line and, as two Carolina penalty killers pursued him, slipped it back to Nikita Kucherov at the right point. The puck came to Victor Hedman at the center point and he hurried a shot to the net. Brayden Point gained position on Jani Hakanpaa and deflected the puck through the pads of Nedeljkovic.
A key sequence occurred late in the period. Erik Cernak suffered an injury when he was sandwiched between two Carolina players. He left the game and didn't return (although he came back for Game Two). Then, with only a few seconds left in the period, Blake Coleman was called for a penalty. Without two of their regular penalty killers, the Lightning allowed a power play goal to Jake Bean at 1:41 of the third.
Video: Mish's Mic | Goodrow's Game-Winner in Carolina
Down to five defensemen, the Lightning managed the rest of the third period well. At 8:04, they navigated their way through one more penalty kill. The Hurricanes posted 12 third period shots on goal, but the Lightning checked tightly, took away Carolina's time and space, and avoided long shifts in the defensive zone. The winning goal came with 7:21 remaining, when Barclay Goodrow's shot from the bottom of the left circle slipped in between the right pad of Nedeljkovic and the short side post. It was a goal Nedeljkovic would have liked back, but it proved to be the difference in the game.
Game One had some moments when the Hurricanes surged. But the Lightning got through those segments by playing solid team defense and, when necessary, leaning on Vasilevskiy. At the other end, the Lightning didn't generate many scoring chances themselves. But their two goal output was enough.
The tight defensive play from both teams continued in Game Two. Despite only posting 15 shots on net for the game, the Lightning were efficient in generating chances on the shots they did record. Killorn's shot from the center point beat a screened Nedeljkovic at 7:09 of the second. Anthony Cirelli finished an open backhander off the rush at 8:06 of the third. In addition to the two goals, the Lightning also produced a Kucherov partial breakaway, an open shot from Jan Rutta that went off the crossbar, and a shot from Killorn during a third period three-on-one. The Hurricanes recorded 32 shots on the night, but the majority of those were from long range. Vasilevskiy did well to track pucks through screens and he stopped all of those Carolina attempts (something Nedeljkovic wasn't able to replicate on the Killorn tally). As they did for much of Game One, the Lightning limited Grade-A scoring chances against. When the Canes pulled the goalie for an extra attacker, Andrei Svechnikov did bury a chance from the low slot. And with about 10 seconds left, Jordan Staal was at the top of the crease and he tipped a shot from Marty Necas. But Vasilevskiy stopped the shot and the Lightning had their second consecutive 2-1 victory.
Game Two also included an injury to Trocheck, who collided with Warren Foegele late in the second period. Trocheck would miss Games Three and Four.
Through two games in the series, some trends had emerged. The team defenses were winning the tug of war against the dynamic offenses. The Canes penalty kill had (mostly) stymied the Lightning power play. ("Mostly" because, even though Carolina had gone four for five on the PK and held the Lightning to one total power play shot through the first two games, that shot had been a goal and was a part of the Lightning's Game One victory). In net, Nedeljkovic only had allowed four total goals, but he hadn't been flawless. At the other end, Vasilevskiy had made more saves and allowed fewer goals (two). Ultimately, in two close games that could have gone either way, the Lightning had made one extra play.
Those trends didn't continue in Game Three. Mrazek replaced Nedeljkovic in net and dealt with plenty of Lightning pressure, shots, and scoring chances. Overall, play was more wide-open. The Hurricanes scored their first two five-on-five goals in the series, with both tallies coming off the rush early in the second period. A line change miscue for the Lightning led to a odd-man chance for the Hurricanes and Brett Pesce ripped a shot from the right circle into the top of the net. Shortly thereafter, Aho got behind the Lightning defenders and scored on a breakaway. The Lightning answered almost immediately. Ondej Palat drew a penalty on Aho on the ensuing shift and the Lightning's power play converted. Unlike in the first two games of the series, the Lightning worked the puck around the offensive zone quickly and crisply. Kucherov zipped a pass to Point in the slot and Point one-timed it in, cutting the deficit in half. When the Lightning got their second power play of the game late in the period, they tied it. Point managed to maintain possession past Carolina penalty killers as he broke into the offensive zone. He dropped a pass to Kucherov in the slot. After Mrazek stopped the initial shot, Kucherov grabbed the rebound and one-timed a pass to Killorn in the slot for the tying goal.
Video: CAR@TBL, Gm3: Point caps precision passing with PPG
The Lightning ended up losing Game Three when Staal tipped in Aho's shot during a Carolina power play in overtime. But the Lightning felt good about how they played. They were far more dynamic in the offensive zone. They had netted two power play goals and almost went 3-3. They posted three dangerous shots during that final power play, which they carried into the start of overtime. Mrazek was the difference, however, as he made 35 saves and held the Lightning to just two goals.
The Lightning's strong overall play continued into the first period of Game Four. They outshot the Canes, 12-7, generated a handful of scoring chances, and grabbed a 1-0 lead when Point finished a tic-tac-toe passing play with a tap-in goal. But that dynamic completely changed in the second period, a wild frame in which the teams combined for eight goals. During the opening 14 minutes of the middle stanza, the Hurricanes played their best hockey of the series. Their forecheck was dominant and they were able to translate a possession advantage into shots and scoring chances. A Stamkos power play goal in the middle of the period was the lone Lightning bright spot during this segment - he popped in a second rebound after Mrazek stopped Point's initial shot and Killorn's rebound hit the crossbar. But the rest of this stretch belonged to Carolina. The Hurricanes netted four goals and produced a number of other dangerous looks. Jaccob Slavin's goal came from a bad angle, but two of the others were from the slot. And Dougie Hamilton's goal went into the top of the net through a heavy screen.
But as was the case in Game Three, the Hurricanes didn't hold onto their two-goal lead very long. Ninety seconds after Slavin's goal made it 4-2, Goodrow drew a penalty on Bean in the neutral zone. The Lightning sent out Cirelli to take the face-off against Staal and Cirelli won it. The Canes never cleared the zone. Twenty-seven seconds into the power play, Cirelli went to the top of the crease and screened Mrazek as Kucherov wristed a shot from the right circle into the top of the net.
That goal shifted the game's momentum. Before the period ended, the Lightning had regained the lead. Off the rush, Tyler Johnson zipped a shot that hit off Hamilton and went over Mrazek's left shoulder to tie the game at 17:10. Stamkos' second power play goal of the game (following another Cirelli face-off win to start the PP) made it 5-4 in the closing minute.
Back up by a goal, the Lightning shut things down in the third period. They added an insurance goal from Kucherov at 6:01 when he converted on a two-on-one with a long-range shot from the high slot. But the story of the third was how the Lightning defended. They held Carolina to just two shots on goal over the first 17 minutes of the period. (The Canes added four more shots after pulling Mrazek for the extra attacker). During that second period segment, the Lightning endured their worst stretch of hockey in the series, but the 6-4 comeback win put them within a game of closing things out.
Trocheck and Niederreiter returned for Game Five, but Foegele, who sustained an injury in Game Three, was out of the lineup. Carolina also went back to Nedeljkovic. He played very well, stopping a number of Grade-A scoring chances for the Lightning. Many of those came in the third period as the Hurricanes pressed to tie the game. Carolina was down at that point, 1-0, because of a crucial swing early in the second period. During a Lightning power play, Vasilevskiy made a lunging save on Trocheck during a two-on-one shorthanded bid. Moments later, Cirelli, who had come out once more to take a power play face-off at the start of the man advantage, went to the bench for a change. Killorn jumped off the bench and, with fresh legs, went around Brady Skjei and created a two-on-one rush. He passed to Point, who finished his backhander into the top of the net.
Video: TBL@CAR, Gm5: Colton nets goal from the circle
Ross Colton's insurance goal came at 9:04 of the third. It was the ninth of 10 consecutive shots for the Lightning in the period. Most of the other nine were very dangerous and, if not for Nedeljkovic, the Lightning would have blown the game wide open. But even though Nedeljkovic kept his team within striking distance, the Hurricanes couldn't break through the Lightning's team defense. After Colton's goal, Tampa Bay delivered one final penalty kill to maintain the lead. And after the Hurricanes pulled the goalie for an extra attacker, the Lightning held the Hurricanes without a shot in the closing minutes.
The series definitely had some twists and turns to it. It started off as a tight, checking, defensive series. Things opened up for the two games in Tampa. Then it was less open for Game Five, at least until the third period. But, with the exception of that 14-minute span in the second period of Game Four, the Lightning dealt well with Carolina's ferocious forecheck. The Lightning's stout team defense helped them win the series - and it was a big factor in how they closed out games in the third period in all four of their victories. The Lightning's power play struggled during the first two games against the aggressive Carolina penalty kill. But the Lightning adjusted and when they began moving the puck more quickly, they created open looks for themselves. In the first two games, the Lightning went 1-5 on the power play with one total shot on goal. In Games Three, Four, and Five, they went 6-11. In terms of their own PK, the Lightning did yield the winning goal to Staal in OT of Game Three, but they only allowed one other power play goal for the duration of the series. The Lightning received production from their top players, but also got contributions from all four lines over the five games. Goodrow's goal was the winner in Game One. Killorn and Cirelli scored even strength in Game Two. Johnson's tally was a crucial one in the Game Four comeback. And Johnson's line was outstanding in Game Five, creating numerous chances and providing the Colton goal in the third.
Then there was the goaltending. Nedeljkovic would like Goodrow's goal back, but as a whole, he played well for Carolina. Mrazek helped his team win Game Three. But Vasilevskiy outplayed them both. He was solid and, when he needed to be, spectacular. After yielding the four goals during the second period of Game Four, he didn't allow another for the rest of the series.
Afterwards, Jon Cooper said that the first two series this postseason have been two of the toughest the Lightning have faced during his time as head coach. They've got another tough one coming up next, a rematch with the New York Islanders.