The 2022 NHL postseason is upon us. For the Carolina Hurricanes, after finishing off the best regular season in franchise history and beating out the record the Stanley Cup-winning 2006 team put up, the time is now to take the step from a good, consistent playoff team to a true contender. They have the star power, the depth, the postseason experience, and the goaltending to do it, but it’ll all come down to execution.
The Eastern Conference is shaping up to be absolutely insane, with all eight teams recording over 100 points in the regular season. There isn’t one bad team in the field, and every single series has numerous storylines and tons of intrigue. You could probably make a case or see a scenario for all eight participants winning the Cup. With that said, and having already mentioned that this team is a true contender (on paper at least) by entering the postseason with six consecutive wins, the Hurricanes have some questions that need to be answered once the first-round series with the Boston Bruins begins. Carolina dominated the season series, winning all three games by a combined score of 16-1, but both of these teams look much different than when those games occurred.
There are plenty of issues that could plague any team in any series, because things like injuries, slumps, and simple bad luck often play big roles in determining the outcomes. However, those things can’t really be controlled, they just tend to happen. Today we’re going to focus on three factors and storylines the Hurricanes can control: things the team must prove if they hope to fulfill their potential and bring a second Stanley Cup to Raleigh.
Top-Pair DeAngelo Won’t Hamper Defense
We’ll start with the part that I’m most interested to see how head coach Rod Brind’Amour handles, and it’s something we could get a pretty clear picture on right away in their first-round series with Boston. The “Perfection Line” has consistently been one of the best in hockey, as the trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak is always priority one in planning for the Bruins. Head coach Bruce Cassidy has split them up at times this year, with Pastrnak bumping down to the second line alongside former Hurricane Erik Haula and Taylor Hall, but it’ll be interesting to see if they are reunited for the playoffs.
So, the question becomes, who draws that top-line matchup? If the answer is Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei, perhaps alongside the Jordan Staal line up front, it kind of handicaps the Hurricanes because Jaccob Slavin is far and away the best defender on the team (and arguably the best in the entire league). There is a little bit of a problem if you play Slavin against that line, though: his offensive-centered partner, Tony DeAngelo.
DeAngelo has been everything the Hurricanes could have asked for in 2021-22. He set a team record (since relocation) with 51 points despite playing in just 64 games, and his feistiness will be important in the playoffs. However, his struggles in his own end are well-documented, and you have to think Cassidy will be more than happy to see Bergeron and company matched up with Slavin if it means they can try to take advantage of DeAngelo’s occasional mishaps.
If Carolina is to advance beyond the Bruins, though, this problem could become more pronounced. Boston is a bit top-heavy offensively these days, and Brind’Amour could probably play matchups a little more easily in this series. However, once they start seeing deep teams like Florida, Tampa Bay, and Toronto, there isn’t going to be a choice to only play DeAngelo against lower-end offensive lines. The Hurricanes must figure out the best way to structure and use their defense, even if it means breaking up their top pairing that has been together a majority of the year. You want Slavin playing those tough matchups, and even Ian Cole has proven to be a great stopper against high-end offensive players. The Hurricanes have options, but DeAngelo’s defensive shortcomings could be an issue depending on which way they go.
The Goaltending Wasn’t a Mirage (And Andersen Isn’t Rusty)
Equally fascinating to consider is the Hurricanes’ situation between the pipes as they enter the postseason. All signs point to Frederik Andersen not being quite ready to return for the beginning of the postseason, but Antti Raanta has played in this league a long time, and been very good for Carolina. Perhaps the most interesting part of the equation to consider is where 22-year-old Pyotr Kochetkov factors in. The rookie was sensational in the first three games of his NHL career, especially in the Metropolitan Division-clinching win at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers.
Now, conventional wisdom suggests that Raanta is going to be the guy to start the playoffs. The Hurricanes are playing an experienced Bruins team with some big-time weapons up front, and it does seem risky to play a kid who has only been in North America for a little over two months in a do-or-die playoff series, especially when the team has serious Stanley Cup aspirations.
But, allow me to play devil’s advocate for a minute. I’m not going to make the same comparison many others have with this situation and what happened in net in the 2006 Playoffs, because the situations are not comparable. Cam Ward was the backup at the NHL level that entire season and had nearly 30 games of NHL experience before taking over the crease in Round 1 and going on to win the Conn Smythe as the postseason’s Most Valuable Player. Kochetkov did not have that same opportunity, although his performance in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and the American Hockey League (AHL) are certainly nothing to take lightly.
Kochetkov just seems to have that “it” factor about him, and the tools to be an elite goaltender in this league are all there. As I’ve said in these spaces time and again, the playoffs are about who gets hot, and that presents a case for riding the red-hot youngster instead of the banged-up veteran who only recently returned to the lineup himself after a lower-body injury. Plus, just look at the way the team interacts with him. You can tell they love the kid already, which is understandable considering the way he came up and gave them huge, impressive minutes at the biggest stage of the season when both their goalies went down. They’ve played really good hockey in front of him, and there’s something to be said for that charisma and obvious impact on morale.
Again, smart money is on Raanta, but the way Kochetkov has played has, at the very least, opened up some conversation here. That leads us to the actual starter, though, Andersen. As previously mentioned, he’s not yet back, but if and when that time comes, what will the Hurricanes get out of him? He had a stellar season, and spent most of the year in the Vezina conversation (despite New York’s Igor Shesterkin all but locking that up by about November). Still, his postseason struggles are well-documented. Can he be counted on to be the same guy he was pre-injury, playing behind perhaps the best defense he’s ever had in front of him? He was showing signs of wearing down before the injury, and Carolina needs him to get back to the level we saw the first six or seven months of the regular season to be at their best.
Goaltending has hampered the Hurricanes in the past, but all year long this looked like possibly the best tandem in franchise history. They’ve gotten some rough luck recently, but every team has to go through things like this if they want to win a Cup. It tests mettle and perseverance. Regardless, if the Hurricanes are going to win the Cup, whoever “the guy” is has to prove this stellar goaltending wasn’t a fluke, and continue to give the team a chance to win every night.
The Depth Outweighs the Star Disadvantage
Now, don’t get me wrong on this one. Sebastian Aho is, without question, a superstar in this league and there are very few players I would take over him if I were starting a franchise. Andrei Svechnikov took a big step this year, and is a much more impactful player than his good-not-great stat line suggests (and I still fully expect him to be a 90-100-point player pretty soon). Slavin is in the conversation as the best defensive defenseman in the league, and there are plenty of high-quality secondary pieces like Teuvo Teravainen, Martin Necas, Seth Jarvis, Vincent Trocheck, Skjei, and Pesce.
Those are good, top-half-of-the-lineup players that will play huge roles if this team is to make a run, but it falls a bit short in terms of true superstars that can simply take over a game and steal a victory when the team doesn’t have their best game. Let’s consider the other top contenders in the Eastern Conference. Florida is led by Hart Trophy candidate Jonathan Huberdeau and star center Aleksander Barkov, plus an elite, two-way defenseman in Aaron Ekblad, and had 10 players score 40 points — plus another two defenseman just shy of that mark at 37. The Tampa Bay Lightning are well-known to have star power throughout, led by captain Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, who is one of the five best players on the planet. Toronto has insane talent at the top, led by the best goal scorer in hockey, Auston Matthews.
Sometimes, series outcomes are determined in a simple fashion — which stars shine brightest. With Aho’s two-way excellence and competitive nature, I have no doubt that he can keep up with and even outplay the players I mentioned. However, what happens if he gets shut down? What if the Hurricanes’ opponents do a good enough job of eliminating the stars atop the lineup? Depth has been a huge factor in this team’s success all season long, but if a game or series gets tight and it comes down to the stars making one play, there is at least some cause for concern that other teams may have more game-changing talent that can simply go get a goal at that crucial moment. Carolina has had bouts of poor finishing throughout the year, and things could get grim if that flaw rears its head again against some Eastern teams.
This post is mostly geared towards the Boston series, and that is certainly a place we could see this play out. Boston has that star power in the top six, with the players mentioned in the first section along with big-time secondary pieces like Hall and the suddenly-red-hot Jake DeBrusk. They may fall short after that top six on paper against the Hurricanes, but that series could still very easily come down to who wins out between Aho and company and the Perfection Line (as an aside, I still think that nickname is dumb). Fans could very well see those two units matched up with one another, and whoever wins the battle could see their team come out victorious.
No Matter What, The Hurricanes’ Road Ahead is Grueling
I found the discourse ahead of the postseason about first-round matchups to be quite funny. I tend to believe teams weren’t really resting players in order to get a specific matchup (the Bruins rested most of their top players in the finale when a win could have helped them avoid Carolina), but rather just because it was the last game and you definitely don’t want to risk an injury then. Of course, the Hurricanes weren’t playing for seeding, but we saw them do the same thing with Staal, Svechnikov, and Slavin. If you plan on winning a Stanley Cup in 2022, it doesn’t matter who you get first. You’re going through three excellent hockey teams with their own Cup aspirations, just to simply make the Final.
The Hurricanes are one of the hottest teams in hockey, as after all their ups-and-downs they’ve turned it on entering the postseason, having won six in a row. These are questions that must be answered, but Brind’Amour’s teams have tended to do just that when the lights have shone brightest. We have a heck of a postseason coming up beginning Monday night, and I, for one, cannot wait to see all eight series get started.
Be sure to check back right here at The Hockey Writers as we will break down everything you need to know as the Hurricanes search for their second Stanley Cup in franchise history.
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!