Hurricanes’ Storylines to Watch in Conference Finals vs. Panthers

It’s easy to look at sports on paper and break down perceived talent discrepancies and think it gives us all we need to make an educated guess on how things will work out. But if that were the case, the team that just had the best regular season of all time, the Boston Bruins, would probably still be playing. Perhaps the Toronto Maple Leafs or the New Jersey Devils, two loaded teams rife with high-flying offensive talent, wouldn’t have bowed out in the second round while winning just one game apiece.

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That’s rarely the way it works out, and, as the saying goes, it’s why you play the games. The 2023 NHL Playoffs have been a complete crapshoot. If I told you I picked all four Conference finalists before the postseason began, and you believed me, I’d probably try to sell you a beachfront property in North Dakota. This unpredictability is part of what makes the NHL playoffs magical. This time of year it’s not about who has the flashiest and most expensive players, or who has the most top picks. It’s about blood, sweat, and tears, about sacrifice and attention to detail. These are the variables that can’t be measured, and the things that many prognosticators have a tough time quantifying when laying out their predictions on how a series will go (and that includes me, I’ll eat crow for picking the Devils in the last series).

So here we sit, with an Eastern Conference Final matchup on the horizon between the Florida Panthers – the team with the fewest points in the regular season of any team that made the playoff field – and the Carolina Hurricanes, the team with the second-best record in the NHL during the regular season, but still a team many doubted heading into the postseason after injuries decimated their forward group. This was further amplified late in the year when some of the same issues that plagued them in past postseasons began to look like large concerns again, such as goalie play and goalscoring. Yet, here they are, one of the last four teams standing, with only a showdown against their old Southeast Division foe between them and a return to the Stanley Cup Final.

These are two teams with a lot of stylistic similarities, but also some notable differences (again, on paper) that do have the potential to swing this series in one direction or the other. Today we’ll look ahead to a few of those matchups and storylines to watch that will likely play a big role in determining how the series goes.

Which Team’s Defensive Structure Wins Out?

The Hurricanes are a team that’s built for this time of the year. When they are on their game, they win battles, allow nothing defensively, and forecheck their opponents to oblivion. Their precise and structured evisceration of the electric Devils offense was a prime example of the responsible, suffocating style; the one head coach Rod Brind’Amour built not only his coaching system on but also his own Hall-of-Fame-worthy career (seriously, why isn’t he in yet?). His players have really taken that style to heart, with a full buy-in to that forechecking, puck possession style, and it’s led to some utterly dominant play in the 2023 Postseason.

Rod Brind'Amour Carolina Hurricanes
Rod Brind’Amour, Head Coach of the Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

However, the Panthers have proven they’re not exactly a slouch in these areas, either. They pulled off a pretty similar feat in their five-game beatdown of the Maple Leafs, yet another skilled, offensive-minded team that looked like a big problem for their opponents on paper. Former Hurricanes’ coach Paul Maurice’s new team has its own relentless forecheck that created a myriad of problems for the Leafs’ stars, and they were deadly on the counterattack after forcing turnovers. There never seemed to be any room for Toronto’s stars to create in the open ice, where they’re most dangerous.

Related: Hurricanes & Panthers Highlight the Value of Defensive Forwards

Now these two strengths will collide, head on. Not to oversimplify the series, but it kind of seems like whichever team causes the most problems for the opposition, whichever wins that forechecking battle, is going to have the upper hand. Despite a plethora of highly-skilled offensive players on each side, the series seems destined to be more of a defensive showdown, much like the Hurricanes’ opening-round slugfest with the New York Islanders. If they can hem the Panthers in for long stretches, and the series becomes reliant on which blue line can hold steadiest longest, the Hurricanes will like their chances. On the other hand, there is one guy in particular that could throw a wrench into those plans…

Can the Hurricanes Solve Another Hot Goalie in Bobrovsky?

Going into the second round against the Devils, the Hurricanes knew they were going to have to work hard to find a way to score against a scorching-hot goaltender that had just put up a .951 save percentage (SV%) against one of the best offenses in the league. They succeeded by playing a simple and efficient game, getting pucks to their dangerous defensemen at the blue line, getting traffic to the net, and being able to manufacture goals through screens and off of rebounds.

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Now, there’s an obvious difference between Akira Schmid and Sergei Bobrovsky. One is a rookie that turned 23 years old the day the Hurricanes put a bow on their second-round series, who had only seen 24 games of NHL experience entering the playoffs. The other is a Vezina Trophy winner who has been around the block and back twice over, as one of the best goalies on the planet during the 2010s. He won’t be easily rattled, and he’s had success against the Hurricanes, with a career .923 SV% head-to-head.

Nonetheless, the blueprint for getting to Bobrovsky is similar. Simplify the game, play north-south, get pucks through traffic, win battles at the front of the net, and score greasy goals. A marker or two in the early going of Game 1, scored with good, old-fashioned hard work, will go a long way towards setting the tone – and that’s the blueprint the Hurricanes have been finding success with all postseason long, anyway.

This helps explain why Jordan Martinook outplayed Jack Hughes last series, why Jesper Fast, Jack Drury, and the ever-competitive Seth Jarvis continue to turn the heads of hockey fans across the league with their motors running ceaselessly: sometimes it’s not about skill. As cliche as it is, the Hurricanes have won by showing as much heart, willingness to sacrifice, and urgency amongst the participants in the 2023 Playoffs, and it may be a simple answer, but it’s why they’re still standing with two rounds to go.

The Hurricanes will need to continue their resilient, insatiable play in order to get to Bobrovsky, and they’ll need their depth players to continue stepping up in order to cause issues for the veteran netminder. On the bright side, though, they’re about to get a little extra help, in the form of one of the Hurricanes’ franchise staples of the last half-decade.

What Do the Hurricanes Get From Teuvo Teravainen?

The news broke on Monday that Teuvo Teravainen is practicing without restrictions and will be good to go for the Eastern Conference Final, less than a month after surgery to repair a broken bone in his hand. The Finnish winger has been out since a slash from New York Islanders forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau in Game 2 of the opening round caused the injury.

Despite not having the offensive season he’s used to, Teravainen is always an imperative part of what the Hurricanes do. He’s a huge part of their penalty kill, an excellent defensive winger, likely has the best vision and passing ability on the team, and his chemistry with Sebastian Aho can’t be understated. Even if he comes back a tad rusty or continues struggling offensively, he’ll at the very least make a positive impact on the defensive side of things, as well as on those around him.

Teuvo Teravainen Carolina Hurricanes
Teuvo Teravainen, Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

To take a glass-half-full approach, imagine Teravainen does come back fresh and healthy, looking like himself for possibly the first time all year. An on-top-of-his-game Teravainen, added to the depth players who have stepped up in a massive way for the Hurricanes, sounds like a scary proposition for any team left in the field. If the increased confidence and production from guys like Martinook, Fast, Drury, Jarvis, and the rest of the Hurricanes who stepped up in Teravainen’s absence can continue to produce at similar rates, an already-pretty-scary team gets downright terrifying.

Teravainen scored seven times during the team’s trek to the conference final in 2019 and scored four goals and 11 points last year. He’s always been a reliable performer in the postseason (32 playoff points in 50 games with Carolina), even in years past when the Hurricanes fell flat. It’s getting pretty late in the game now, and this is the stage some guys start to wear down a bit. Adding a high-end piece like this could be a huge story for the Hurricanes as they try to get over the hump and return to the Final for the first time in 17 years.

Roster Connections All Around for Hurricanes & Panthers

Beyond the comparable styles of play and similar paths to get to this point, there is obviously a ton of familiarity between these two sides. Brind’Amour played under Paul Maurice once upon a time for this very Hurricanes franchise, and the two teamed up to go to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final back in 2002.

Of course, the storyline that’ll surely get the most publicity is the showdown of the Staal family, with Hurricanes captain Jordan taking on brothers Eric and Marc of the Panthers. Oh, and don’t forget Jared, who was also a brief Hurricane and is currently coaching with the Charlotte Checkers, the Panthers’ American Hockey League affiliate (and, you know, the Hurricanes’ old one as of two years ago).

Beyond how difficult it’s got to be to play against your brother in a physical, high-intensity environment like this, it’ll surely be a bit bittersweet for Hurricanes fans everywhere. Eric Staal surely isn’t the player he once was, but will forever be a hero in Carolina after he led the way as a baby-faced 22-year-old on the way to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup. That 2005-06 season saw him record the franchise’s only 100-point season (since relocation), and in his 12-year stint in Raleigh created a laundry list of incredible moments and memories. To that end, how cathartic will it be for the fans to see him and Jordan embrace at center ice after the latter knocks off his big brother to take the team back to the Final for the first time since that 2006 win?

Or on the other hand… how bittersweet will it be if the roles are reversed? Seeing Eric and the Panthers pull off the upset, giving the franchise legend – who will undoubtedly soon have his No. 12 in the rafters at PNC Arena – one more, likely last real run at his second Stanley Cup?

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(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There are going to be a lot of emotional moments (and a wide range of them, too) between these two familiar teams and fanbases, but things are sure to ramp up in a hurry once the puck drops Thursday night. Brother on brother, former player against his old coach, and franchise icon against the franchise his hockey career got kicked off in, all with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line.

Keep your traditional markets, I’ll take the Southeast Showdown.