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Playoff Preview: Hurricanes penalty kill vs. Predators power play

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The Canes boast a top-three penalty kill in the NHL, which will surely be an advantage against the Predators’ 24th-ranked power play.

NHL: Nashville Predators at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

When the Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators square off in the first round of the NHL playoffs, there will be quite a few areas on the ice where the Central Division-champion Canes outmatch the Preds.

Perhaps the most staggering mismatch between the two teams will come when Carolina takes a penalty and heads to the box, as the Canes boast one of the league’s best penalty kills while the Predators have one of the NHL’s worst power-play units.

While avoiding penalties altogether is of course ideal, the Canes shouldn’t fret too much when Nashville goes to the power play in this playoff-opening series between the Canes and the team they beat six of eight times in the regular season.

Here’s how the Hurricanes’ penalty kill matches up with Nashville’s power play:

The Matchup

On the season as a whole, Carolina’s penalty kill was phenomenal and among the league’s best. The Canes finished the season with a PK percentage of 85.2, third best in the NHL behind just Vegas and Boston.

The Hurricanes allowed just 26 power-play goals against, less than one per game, in 176 times shorthanded. The 85.2% on the penalty kill is the third-best mark in franchise history for a season.

On the other end, Nashville’s power play was a significant struggle for the Predators all season. Nashville scored 28 power-play goals in 159 chances, a 17.6 percent mark that ranks 24th of 31 teams in the league. Of the 16 teams that will compete in the playoffs, Nashville’s power-play percentage is the worst.

In eight games between the Hurricanes and Predators this season, Nashville’s power play went 3 for 27, an 11% mark for the Preds man advantage and an 89 percent tally for Carolina’s penalty kill. Nashville scored a power-play goal in each of its first two games this year against Carolina, and then added one more in the final game of the season after going five straight games against the Canes without scoring on the man advantage.

As far as the actual units matchup, that plays out well for the Hurricanes as well:

Micah Blake McCurdy, hockeyviz.com
Micah Blake McCurdy, hockeyviz.com

Carolina and its top-three PK defense does a great job of limiting any chances in the circles, in the slot or even in front of the net. The vast majority of opponents’ unblocked shots against the Canes’ PK come from deep, a recipe for success for any PK unit. The Hurricanes limit those dangerous circle shots, and also really control the front of the net well.

For the Predators, their power-play heat map fits in pretty well with the Canes’ PK one, not a great sign for Nashville. The Predators’ power play did a pretty bad job this season of getting chances in the circles, or even in front of the net (though better there), a big reason for their inability to score up a man.

With a shot chart that features that many shots from beyond the circles, it’s no secret as to why Nashville’s xGF/60 on the power play was well below league average. Match that with the Canes, who push power-play shots to the outside, and this isn’t exactly the best of matchups for the Predators.

Players to Watch

Micah Blake McCurdy, hockeyviz.com

For the Hurricanes, the defensive trio of Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin and Brady Skjei have been the most prolific penalty killers, while Jordan Staal and Brock McGinn have been the forwards with the most PK time.

Pesce may be the lead guy for Carolina’s PK unit. He’s second in the entire NHL with 172:13 penalty-kill minutes this season, averaging over three minutes on the PK a game. His PK +/- is just -10, an impressive mark for someone who has spent as much time as him on the ice down a man.

Slavin is right behind Pesce with 2:42 per game of PK time, with a +/- of -8. Those two are the absolute defensive stalwarts for the Hurricanes, with Pesce pairing up well with Skjei and Slavin spending a lot of PK time with his regular partner, Dougie Hamilton.

Those defenseman, along with midseason acquisition Jani Hakanpaa and a mixture of Haydn Fleury (who was traded for Hakanpaa) and Jake Bean, held down the fort defensively. As far as forwards go, the Canes have one of the absolute best PK guys in the captain Staal.

Staal is averaging over two minutes of PK time per game and has a GA/60 of just 3.8 in that situation. The other big forward for Carolina on the PK has been McGinn, who will hopefully be back for the playoffs after missing the last month of the regular season. Head coach Rod Brind’Amour did say Wednesday that the Canes expected to have everyone available, so the return of McGinn will help the PK even more.

And of course no penalty kill is complete without the goalies, and Petr Mrazek and Alex Nedljkovic have been quite good shorthanded this year. Mrazek holds the fifth-best save percentage in the NHL (.913) shorthanded among goalies with more than 40 minutes of penalty kill time, and he’s second in GAA (2.98).

Nedeljkovic has been great as well, as his .895 shorthanded save percentage is 14th and his 4.01 GAA is sixth. He’s also 15th in high-danger save percentage, stopping 83.3% of high-danger chances against on the penalty kill.

Micah Blake McCurdy, hockeyviz.com

Most of Nashville’s power-play production has come from its top unit of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Eeli Tolvanen, Mikael Granlund and Roman Josi. Josi, the QB of that unit, leads the team with 14 power-play points on one goal and 13 assists, while Tolvanen’s six power-play goals are a team high.

Granlund sits right behind Tolvanen with five goals, while Forsberg and Johansen both have three.

That unit will be going up against the Canes’ best, and while there’s talent there, the production just hasn’t been staggering. For comparison’s sake, the Canes have five players this season with 14 or more points on the power play.

Conclusion

This will be an area of extreme strength for the Hurricanes and severe weakness for the Predators. Taking advantage of power-play chances is always important when it comes to winning a playoff series, and it’s hard to see the Predators tallying too many times while up a man.

The Canes won the division for a reason, and special teams were a big part. The penalty kill is as strong as any in the league, and facing the worst remaining power play, it shouldn’t have too much to worry about.