The NHL season is in the final stretch of the regular season, with between 11 and 13 games remaining before the real fun starts. That’s still an important stretch of schedule, but, at least in the Eastern Conference, there isn’t too much left to determine outside of seeding; at this point, we know exactly who is going to be in. Theoretically, the New York Islanders could make a run and grab a spot, but that would take a pretty monumental collapse by the Washington Capitals. The Islanders have 13 games remaining to Washington’s 12 and a 13-point deficit.
The Carolina Hurricanes have their eyes on the top seed in the Metropolitan Division. While they’re likely to end up in the second seed on account of the hotter-than-the-sun Florida Panthers, their Stanley Cup aspirations are no less legitimate. Carolina clinched a playoff spot and hit the 100-point mark for just the second time in franchise history on Thursday. Still, the Eastern Conference playoffs look like an absolute murderer’s row. Some team is going to run the gauntlet to make the Final, and on paper, all the possible matchups are juicy.
Today, we’re going to look at the Hurricanes’ seven potential playoff opponents, ranked from best to worst, starting with the team I think the Hurricanes would match up with best. This isn’t going to be a simple power ranking. Rather, we’re going to consider how their strengths and weaknesses match up, how games against the two tend to play out and also take a shot at what the deciding factors in the series might be.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins
Current Record: 41-20-10
2021-22 Meetings (home team first): Feb. 20 Penguins 3 – Hurricanes 4
March 4 – Hurricanes 3 – Penguins 2 (OT)
March 13 – Penguins 4 – Hurricanes 3
Potential Series-Defining Questions: Depth and Tristan Jarry’s performance
When the “best” potential matchup for a playoff series is a team with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby on it, you should be able to deduce all you need to about the Eastern Conference playoffs this season. It won’t be surprising if any of the seven teams listed here (including the Hurricanes) make a very, very deep run. It’s shaping up to be a heck of a postseason where every single potential matchup could provide a lot of fireworks and neither team seems overmatched on paper.
The Hurricanes looked good against the Penguins this season, with their only loss in the three meetings coming on the road on the final night of a three-in-four (they beat the Colorado Avalanche and Philadelphia Flyers in the first two). By no means would this be a cakewalk, but Pittsburgh has a few flaws the Hurricanes should be able to exploit. First and foremost, their goaltender, Jarry, has been quite good this season with a .920 save percentage (SV%) and 2.39 goals-against average (GAA). However, the soon-to-be-27-year-old is in his first year handling a typical starter’s workload, and his previous results have been very up and down. Pittsburgh also has one of the more exploitable blue lines among all these teams, so he’ll need to be at his best if the Penguins want to advance.
The depth question marks don’t end with the defense after Kris Letang, though, as their scoring depth seems to be a question mark perennially. Their top-six is as good as any, but if the Hurricanes are healthy and rolling a fourth line with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and another not-really-bottom-six player such as Max Domi or Seth Jarvis on it, that could prove to be the difference for Carolina – especially considering the high level of play from the third line of Jordan Staal, Jesper Fast, and Nino Niederreiter. Scoring depth has played a huge role in the Hurricanes getting to where they are, so if Sebastian Aho and company can keep pace and play to something resembling a draw with Pittsburgh’s top six, the scoring depth will come into focus. I would pick the ‘Canes on paper in this series but would expect six games to end it.
6. Boston Bruins
Current Record: 44-21-5
2021-22 Meetings: Oct. 28 – Hurricanes 3 – Bruins 0
Jan. 18 – Bruins 1 – Hurricanes 7 –
Feb. 10 – Bruins 0 – Hurricanes 6 –
Potential Series-Defining Questions: Goalie play and physicality.
This season has been an exorcising of demons for the Hurricanes, as the big, bad, Boston Bruins knocked them out of the playoffs twice in the first three years of Rod Brind’Amour’s head coaching tenure. This ‘Canes are a lot more mature and simply better than those squads were, and Boston has been hit with some tough losses from those teams such as Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, and David Krejci. The Hurricanes wore them out in the season series, with a dominant aggregate scoring total of 16-1.
Still, Boston has a ton of talent at the top of the roster that can feasibly carry them deep into the postseason – especially considering how much experience the core has in advancing. David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron still make up the best line in hockey, and their depth fits their identity as a physical, hard-working club. They also cleaned up a hole on their blue line with the trade deadline acquisition of Hampus Lindholm.
Like Pittsburgh, I have questions about their goalie after Rask retired midseason (by the way, it bears mentioning that the Hurricanes have questions too, considering Frederik Andersen’s track record with the Toronto Maple Leafs). Jeremy Swayman has been excellent in his NHL career with a .924 SV% and 2.10 GAA over two seasons, but he’s played just 44 games and is only 23 years old. The playoff spotlight is a different animal, especially for a young player.
Also, much like when the Bruins eliminated the Hurricanes in prior years, this is a very physical team that is going to make you earn every single shift. Boston has seven players with at least 100 hits this season, while Carolina has just three. For a Carolina team that still has some young, finesse-centric players that have not yet proven they can handle a physical playoff series, this could play a big role in determining the outcome. Many players were taken off their games and rendered ineffective in those past series, so despite the positive results and an on-paper advantage in this potential matchup, there would certainly be questions to answer if it comes to fruition.
5. New York Rangers
Current Record: 45-20-6
2021-22 Meetings: Jan. 21 – Hurricanes 6 – Rangers 3
March 20 – Hurricanes 0 – Rangers 2
Hurricanes still play at NYR twice, April 12 and April 26
Potential Series-Defining Questions: Can the Hurricanes solve Shesterkin, and can they slow down Kreider?
The Rangers are, in many ways, the opposite of the Penguins. Their star power is solid, not great (although what Chris Kreider has done this season is one of the most fascinating phenomena I’ve ever witnessed in this league), but their goaltender is arguably the best in the league. Igor Shesterkin is not only the heavy favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie but deserves to be in the conversation as a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate as league MVP. I don’t find the Rangers to be significantly different than in seasons when they were a bubble team, but his play alone (well, again, along with Kreider going nuclear) has elevated them into a race for the top seed in a very tough division.
Many people would probably rank New York a little lower (as in, a more favorable matchup), but we’ve seen time and again what a goalie getting hot at the right time can do, especially against a team as prone to making almost any goalie look like a Vezina candidate with their occasionally-poor offensive stretches – something we’re going to talk about a lot further down – the idea of a seven-game series with Shesterkin is pretty scary. He’s as good a bet as any to get scorching hot and steal a couple of series, and when you have the scoring potential that Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, and Hurricanes legend Adam Fox bring to the table, that could easily spell trouble for Carolina.
By the way, in case you didn’t know, and also because it almost bears repeating, Kreider’s career-high entering 2021-22 was 28 goals. He has 47 and should be a lock for 50 by the way he’s scoring, especially on the power play (oh, there’s another red flag for the Hurricanes, who absolutely cannot stay out of the box). He is going to nearly double his career-high at age 30. This league, man.
4. Washington Capitals
Current Record: 38-22-10
2021-22 Meetings: Nov. 28 – Hurricanes 2 – Capitals 4
March 3 – Capitals 4 – Hurricanes 0
March 18 – Hurricanes 3 – Washington 4 (SO)
March 28 – Capitals 1 – Hurricanes 6
Potential Series-Defining Questions: Can the Hurricanes stay out of the box?
Despite the relatively sizable gap in the standings, the Hurricanes and Capitals are two pretty evenly-matched teams. Washington got off to a tough start this season, largely because of extensive injuries, but are healthy and clicking at a pretty high level of late. Alexander Ovechkin is showing zero sign of slowing down at age 36, as he’s scored another 43 goals to get well within striking distance of Wayne Gretzky’s record.
Oh, and remember what I said about the Hurricanes being unable to stay out of the penalty box? That flaw feels Oh, and remember what I said about the Hurricanes being unable to stay out of the penalty box? That flaw feels potentially fatal in a playoff series with Washington. Everyone knows what they want to do; everyone knows where he’s going to be, and, yet, nobody can stop it. If you continuously parade to the penalty box against the Capitals, Ovechkin is going to score; he is going to celebrate like it’s his first NHL goal like he does every time he scores (not meant as a shot at him, I love it), and everyone in CanesLand is going to be mad. It’s inevitable.
The Hurricanes have to prove they can maintain some semblance of discipline if they match up with Washington. They can take them down, as they’ve proven in the past with a less-talented team, and they would probably even be the favorite in this matchup. But, if they feed Ovi and friends power-play chances, it’s going to make winning incredibly difficult. Despite that Washington took three of the four games in the season series, the Hurricanes outscored them 10-6 at five-on-five. With special teams becoming something of a question mark recently anyway, as Carolina’s top-ranked penalty kill has shown some cracks and the power play has dried up, keeping things even (or getting on the man advantage themselves) would be paramount.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs
Current Record: 45-19-6
2021-22 Meetings: Oct. 25 – Hurricanes 4, Maple Leafs 1
Feb. 7 – Maple Leafs 4 – Hurricanes 3 (OT)
March 17 – Maple Leafs 3 – Hurricanes 2
Potential Series-Defining Questions: Can the Hurricanes keep pace offensively?
The Hurricanes do not lack firepower, but there have been more games than they’d like this season where, despite a significant shot advantage, they ended up losing because the other team simply finished on a larger number of their chances. Two of the three meetings with the Toronto Maple Leafs were great examples of this. Carolina’s depth scoring can be really good at times, as established above, but other times, the top guys fall into a rut, and it has a trickle-down effect where the team simply cannot score. In a hypothetical series against the Maple Leafs – and this applies to the teams further down the list, too – if the Hurricanes find themselves in a goal-scoring rut, it could be curtains.
I know. Toronto? Really? They can’t get out of the first round. Don’t bank on that trend continuing because this 2021-22 team seems like a good bet to end that “curse” and be a real factor in the race for the hardest trophy to win in sports. The Hurricanes don’t have the kind of firepower at the top that Toronto does. Auston Matthews looks like one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the game already, with an absurd 54 goals in 65 games as of this writing. It’s a little early to be considering this, but we may be watching someone who could chase down Ovechkin one day.
Even beyond the likely Rocket Richard Trophy winner and Hart candidate, the Maple Leafs’ scoring is far from barren – Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and rookie scoring leader Michael Bunting are all highly dangerous offensive players, and there is a ton of capable depth beyond them with names like Alex Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, Ondrej Kase, Pierre Engvall, and veteran, two-time Cup champion Wayne Simmonds rounding out the forward lines. They can and will score on just about anybody. If Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen aren’t clicking, it’ll be nigh-impossible to keep up.
On the bright side, the Hurricanes’ strength is their defense, so there is reason to believe they could, at the very least, slow down the Maple Leafs’ offensive attack, and, meanwhile, Toronto’s ability to keep pucks out of their own net is probably their biggest concern. Goalies Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek have both dealt with injuries (Mrazek is currently out long-term with a lower-body injury), and both have had serious struggles stopping pucks at times this season. Those are serious flaws that could easily end Toronto’s lofty aspirations again. This would make for a highly entertaining series of strength vs. strength, much like we saw in the three hotly-contested affairs in the regular season.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
Current Record: 43-20-7
2021-22 Meetings: Nov. 9 – Lightning 1 – Hurricanes 2 (OT)
March 22 – Hurricanes 3 – Lightning 2
March 28 – Lightning 4 – Hurricanes 3 (OT)
Potential Series-Defining Questions: Which goalie wins the battle?
It seems odd, but Tampa Bay was probably the team I had the toughest time placing on this list. I very nearly slotted them a spot lower, but I think that may just be spotlight fatigue and the thought that “no way they win three in a row, right? Two is hard enough…” Common sense won out, though, and you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think this team (despite some important losses that definitely have the team a tick below the last two seasons) isn’t still a legitimate threat to lift the Stanley Cup in a few months.
The Hurricanes should have a ton of confidence against the Lightning right now. Prior seasons have seen a pretty one-sided rivalry between the former Southeast Division foes, but the Hurricanes got points in all three meetings this year, including two wins. Perhaps even more impressive was the one overtime loss, a game in which a phantom call led to an overtime power-play goal for Steven Stamkos. The Hurricanes were on the last leg of a three-in-four, all on the road, and started backup goaltender Antti Raanta that night. They were pretty awful by their standards in that game and played against arguably the best goalie in the league, right up alongside Shesterkin, yet still found a way to score three goals on just 19 shots to grab a point.
Ultimately, it feels like this series will come down to who wins the goalie battle. Andrei Vasilevskiy is a known commodity in the postseason at this point, and he’s going to keep just about everything he can see out of the net. But, if Frederik Andersen can continue to play like the brick wall the team has had all season long – the player who has built a case for legitimate Vezina consideration – they can beat this team. They’ve proven it to themselves over the course of the season, and especially after they gave them a solid run in last year’s playoffs (I still maintain that series was closer than the five games suggest), they just need a few things to break their way.
First, the Hurricanes will have to be on their grind, creating greasy goals and winning battles in the dirty areas if they’re going to consistently beat Vasilevskiy. That’s a heck of a task, though, with a highly-talented blue line that can really clear the crease led by Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh, and the breakout star from last year’s postseason, bruiser Erik Černák. After that, the simple task is to slow down a top-three player in the league in Nikita Kucherov, the ever-dangerous Stamkos, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, rock-solid bottom-sixers like Brandon Hagel, Ross Colton, Corey Perry…Did I miss anyone?
It’s obviously a daunting task; that much is irrefutable. The Hurricanes’ stars will have to match the Lightning’s, and the depth scoring will have to be on the “up” side of the pendulum. However, Carolina has proven time and again that when they’re on their game, playing with speed, creating havoc on the forecheck, and crashing the blue paint, they can beat anyone. I think that’ll hold true even in the playoffs. I will say, though, that this next team is going to take one hell of an effort to take down, barring something highly unforeseen.
1. Florida Panthers
Current Record: 49-15-6
2021-22 Meetings: Nov. 6 – Panthers 5 – Hurricanes 2
Jan. 8 – Hurricanes 3 – Panthers 4 (OT)
Feb. 16 – Hurricanes 2 – Panthers 3 (OT)
Potential Series-Defining Questions: Where is Ekblad at? Even if he’s not at top level, will it matter with this offense?
Well, I said at the top, this wasn’t a straight-up power ranking, but it doesn’t matter where you rank these opponents – it’s hard to put anyone but the Florida Panthers atop the list of playoff participants in the Eastern Conference. Outside of the Colorado Avalanche, if I were a betting man, nobody else would even garner consideration. All season long, the team has seemed different; from becoming the first team all year to knock off the incredibly-hot-starting Hurricanes to flying to the best record in the Eastern Conference, setting records, and then going out at the trade deadline and adding Ben Chiarot and arguably the top free agent on the market, Claude Giroux. This team was insanely deep before those moves Now, they’re an absolute monster.
The one big question mark is on defense, with former first-overall pick Aaron Ekblad on injured reserve after a lower-body injury. It’s a tough break for the injury-prone star defenseman, in the midst of a breakout season, and who adds a dynamic not shown throughout the blue line. He was a top candidate for the Norris Trophy (although the race seems to be for second with the insane season Roman Josi is having), with 15 goals and 57 points in 61 games. The good news for Florida is he’s expected back “sometime in the first round”, and they do have some other highly-talented pieces on defense, such as Mackenzie Weegar, Gustav Forsling, and Brandon Montour. Still, none of those players are anywhere near as dynamic a presence as Ekblad, and the team will suffer if he’s not 100%.
Sergei Bobrovsky has had his ups and downs, especially in the second half of the season. So, perhaps, the Panthers start to bleed goals a bit; they did just give up six to Toronto, after all (and then came back from 5-1 down to win 7-6 because this team is insane). However, even when there have been issues in their own end, they make up for it with offense. Lots and lots of offense.
Let’s start with Jonathan Huberdeau, who just set the NHL record for assists by a left-winger last week. He’s also the first Panther to eclipse the century mark, with 102 points and double-digit games remaining to add to it. Aleksander Barkov likely would have hit that mark also had he not missed 13 games, but the Panthers captain still has 76 points in just 57 games. Those two players are superstars who are in the conversation as among the top players at their position in the league. Beyond them? I kind of regret wasting my little joke of naming so many names above because this team has a ridiculous 11 players with at least 40 points on the season. Not included in that list was Joe Thornton, the seventh-best assist man of all time.
So, that’s a long-winded way of saying this team is loaded offensively. The Hurricanes played them tough a couple of times in the regular season, but they would have been well-served to, at least, pull out one win (the loss when Florida tied it with under a minute remaining and Ekblad scored 16 seconds into OT especially hurt). Florida would have all sorts of confidence in a postseason series, and, perhaps, Carolina could have just a touch of doubt if things go poorly early on.
Why Not Carolina?
Despite those perceived momentum boosters, look back at 2018-19. Washington swept the Hurricanes in the regular season. The Hurricanes then won the playoff series between the two. Or how about in the bubble in 2020 – the same thing happened with the Rangers sweeping the regular season and getting the same result in the postseason (although just three games during the play-in, instead of four). It’s almost cliche to say “throw out the regular season records”, but it’s a cliche for a reason.
The Hurricanes have proven they can beat anyone, are one of the deepest, most talented rosters the organization has ever had, and they’ve gained valuable experience in the postseason in the last least three years. So, why not the ‘Canes? The playoffs are all about who gets hot at the right time. They can beat Florida and everyone else on this list. But the right team has to show up and perhaps catch a break or two along the way. That is standard for any postseason, and why upsets are far from uncommon in this sport; it’s all about who brings it and who gets a bounce or two. Despite that the Panthers are the favorites to come out of the East, odds are still low for any one team.
Overall, I just touched on eight different teams, and I can think of a scenario where all eight are playing for, if not straight-up hoisting, the Stanley Cup. That’s part of what makes this sport so fun; the possibility that anything can happen on any night, in any series, in any postseason. We still have nearly a month to go, but this is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing four-round battles in a long time. So, get your rest over the next couple of weeks and prepare yourself mentally: it’s going to be a heck of a ride when the NHL playoffs finally arrive.
Brandon Stanley covers the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings here at THW. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, in addition to writing about the Hurricanes for about five years now, he played in the Carolina Junior Canes program for another 15; hockey has always been his biggest passion. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Brandon also co-hosts and edits a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects, to game recaps, and everything in between. Always available to chat anything hockey related, don’t hesitate to shoot him a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!