Hurricanes’ Intense Season Series With Lightning Could Bleed Into Playoffs

No matter how you slice it, the Carolina Hurricanes are going to have a difficult road to the Stanley Cup. For several weeks now, games between the Carolina Hurricanes and teams like the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning have had a playoff atmosphere, and that’s to be expected when the top three teams in the Central Division are butting heads for first place.

With the season series now wrapped up between the Hurricanes and defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning, the sense of do-or-die desperation felt stronger than ever before, because in the three-horse race for the Central division title, nobody wants to be the team that finishes in the No. 2 or 3 spot.

With about a month still remaining in the regular season, the standings are bound to be in flux, but each of the Hurricanes, Panthers and Lightning know that if they fail to capture the No. 1 seed in the division, they’ll likely have to go through two juggernaut teams just to make it to the final four.

Florida is currently tied with Carolina for first in the division, but the Hurricanes have dominated that series with a 5-0-1 record. The Panthers also have little postseason experience, having only qualified for the playoffs twice in the past 19 seasons.

No shade to the Panthers, but with the pedigree and depth of the Lightning, there’s no doubt Tampa Bay poses the biggest threat to the Hurricanes. Even missing two of their superstar forwards, the Lightning brought aggression and ferocity to the ‘Canes in this week’s doubleheader, and that theme only grew stronger throughout their rivalry.

Physicality Takes Center Stage

Physicality was a major factor in the last two games of the series. Both featured a fight, and while the Hurricanes responded well in their 4-1 win Tuesday night, they were mostly on the receiving end of the bruising and bullying in Monday’s 3-2 overtime loss.

With the addition of David Savard at the trade deadline, and players like Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman and Alex Killorn seeing more shifts due to their injuries, the Lightning have become one of the more rugged teams in the league.

The absence of Brock McGinn has been felt in the eight games he’s missed since suffering an upper-body injury, but most notably against the intimidation tactics of the Lightning. The speed and energy he brings is a huge momentum shifter in the Hurricanes’ lineup, not to mention his willingness to throw around his body nearly every shift.

Brock McGinn, Carolina Hurricanes
Hurricanes forward Brock McGinn is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With both the Hurricanes and Lightning missing key players for extended periods of time, it’s impressive that they’ve been able to keep themselves atop league standings throughout the course of the year. Should both teams have healthy rosters come playoff time, they’re two of the league’s most powerful teams, and they seem destined to clash early on.

Jockeying for Position and Preparing for the Playoffs

Since each team took an equal nine points away from the series, it’s hard to declare a winner. The only team in playoff contention to give the Hurricanes trouble has been the Lightning, and they’re done with them for the rest of the regular season. But if they do collide come playoff time, which team would hold the edge?

Motivated by the challenge, the Central division rivals have played some of their best hockey against each other this season. In a playoff series, home-ice advantage could play a big part in the outcome, as both the Hurricanes (16-3-4) and Lightning (17-6-0) are exceptional home teams.

Goaltending will also be a major factor, as the ‘Canes will be facing former Vezina Trophy-winner Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Russian netminder started seven of eight games against the Hurricanes this season, posting a .933 save percentage (SV%), a 2.14 goals-against average (GAA) and one shutout.

The Hurricanes have three goalies at the ready, but at this point in the season, it’s come down to Petr Mrazek and Alex Nedeljkovic, both of whom posted stellar numbers against the Lightning – and pretty much every other team – this season.

vs. TBL (2020-21)RecordSV%GAAShutouts
Alex Nedeljkovic2-1-0.961%1.011
Petr Mrazek1-0-1.956%1.451
James Reimer1-2-0.891%2.710

The Hurricanes relied not on offensive outbursts, but controlled defensive play and strong goaltending in their victories. That was also a common theme in the Lightning’s wins, as neither team scored more than four goals in any of their eight meetings.

Mrazek, Nedeljkovic and Vasilevskiy are all top-five goalies in terms of SV% and GAA this year, and like the season series, a potential playoff matchup will be heavily influenced by the play between the pipes – at least until the return of a few key offensive specialists.

Hurricanes & Lightning Have Major Players Nearing Returns

Lightning forward Steven Stamkos was recently placed on long-term injured reserve with a lower-body injury and won’t return until at least May. 2019 Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov has been out all season after undergoing hip surgery. But with news that Kucherov is progressing on schedule, and Stamkos appearing due to return around the start of the postseason, the Lightning, come the playoffs, will be an even more daunting force.

Nikita Kucherov Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The good news for the Hurricanes is that Teuvo Teravainen seems to be finally making some progress after suffering a concussion on Feb. 19. He practiced with the team on Friday, and head coach Rod Brind’Amour hopes to get him in before the start of the postseason.

“That’s the big question mark. That’s the one, obviously. I think [McGinn] will be back obviously, so I feel good about that one, but Teuvo is the wild card here. We need him back and we need him to turn the corner here and say he’s ready to go. We’re banking on it, obviously, but having him back would really make things feel a lot better.”

– Head coach Rod Brind’Amour on the status of Teuvo Teravainen

When it comes to competition, the Hurricanes and Lightning both have relatively easy schedules to close out their seasons. The Lightning sit three points back of the Hurricanes and Panthers with 10 games remaining. Carolina has 11 games left to play, which includes a five-game home stand.

With both teams expecting to make deep playoff runs, the Hurricanes and Lightning seem destined to collide, and if they’re able to get their big weapons back in time, fans will be in for a truly explosive battle.

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